29 Apr 2022

The cameras watching over us

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 29 April 2022
Wiri Prison - Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility - CCTV

Photo: RNZ

All over the country, ratepayers are forking out millions of dollars for CCTV cameras. But are they actually making us any safer?

RNZ's Farah Hancock was walking home one day when she felt like she was being watched. 

She turned and spotted a camera on a pole in someone's front yard. As she moved, the camera seemed to turn with her, like the Mona Lisa and her eyes that follow you around the room. 

"They've got this camera mounted on a pole that actually motion tracks as you walk down the street." 

The experience inspired Hancock, a data journalist on RNZ's In Depth team, to look into surveillance cameras - specifically publicly funded CCTV cameras

"That got me thinking: how many places am I being filmed? How many people are filming me? How many hard drives is footage of me sitting on?" 

Taking The Detail on a short trip along Fort Street in downtown Auckland, she points out 21 cameras along a 100-metre stretch. They're outside most of the shops and bars, on poles and in carparks. 

Hancock decided to investigate how often we are filmed outside in public going about our normal business. 

"And could I map everywhere that there are publicly owned cameras?" 

So far, she's mapped about 5000 cameras across the country, and she continues to update it as more information comes in from local councils. 

Hancock's work is the result of nearly 100 official information requests to councils and other public agencies about their cameras. 

She wanted to know why they use cameras, whether audio is recorded and whether they're using technology like facial recognition.  

"The most cited reason [for the cameras] was security," she says. 

Further digging revealed that while the cameras make people feel safer, there's no evidence that they actually make people safer. 

Hancock estimates there are 10,000 publicly owned CCTV cameras around New Zealand, a fraction of the 400,000-odd privately owned surveillance cameras. 

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