Surveillance camera boom in Czech towns and cities evokes concerns over loss of privacy

Photo: Kristýna Maková

Many Czech towns and cities are filling with video surveillance cameras as an effective way of curbing crime. While many have welcomed the practice, others warn that it could lead to a massive invasion of privacy.

Photo: Kristýna Maková
Taking a walk through Prague? Smile you are on camera. That is the joke being bandied around by those who are increasingly opposed to the growing number of surveillance cameras being installed all over the Czech capital. Securing law and order on an austerity budget is not easy and both the local authorities and the police have welcomed surveillance cameras as an effective tool in the fight against crime – be it assaults, car theft, pick-pocketing or graffiti art. There are now close to 800 surveillance cameras positioned around the Czech capital and new ones appear every month. For instance the Prague 13 district alone is planning to invest several million crowns into new cameras.

And other Czech towns and cities are following suit. The town of Břeclav installed 7 surveillance cameras in critical locations three months ago. Half of the million crown expenditure was covered from state funds. Four security employees watch the cameras 24 hours a day and the local police chief Stanislav Hrdlička says the investment has paid off.

“In the past three months we have successfully dealt with several hundred incidents of street crime, while before that it used to be just several dozen incidents over the same period. You can see our officers responding to another incident registered on camera even as we speak.”

The inhabitants of Breclav are happy that their town has become a safer place and the local authorities are planning to enforce the surveillance system. Eliška Windová, is the town hall’s spokesperson:

“This year we are planning to ask for state support to get another fifteen cameras installed around our biggest housing community.“

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
The town of Mikulov has similar plans, as do over 200 other towns. More than half of them will be disappointed. In 2013 the interior ministry has promised to distribute 46.5 million crowns among 116 applicants who will be expected to co-finance the security project. There are also plans to put security cameras in public transport. While most people generally put security ahead of privacy some voices are now being raised in protest and the Watchdog Iuridicum Remedium, which among others focuses on human rights and technology, says that without proper legislation and control the security camera boom could soon present a serious problem and is already a major invasion into people’s privacy. Lawyer Jan Voboril of Iuridicum Remedium explains:

“The problem is that the cameras are often installed without a proper analysis of the security situation and once installed the camera remains in place even if the security situation improves. I believe we need to think more about where each new camera is being placed and for what reason.”

The co-inventor of the IP camera and co-founder of Axis Communications, Martin Gren, plays down the fact that citizens are under constant surveillance in public.

“Ninety-nine percent of these security videos are never watched. It is only when somebody reports and incident, that there has been a case of pick-pocketing or something like that.”

Martin Gren,  photo: Alžběta Havlová
However the fact that there is no proper legislation in place leaves a lot of room for doubt. Iuridicum Remedium which has been monitoring the situation for several years has created a website with a map showing where security cameras and road cameras are located in order to let the public know where they are under surveillance. The map is freely editable and the NGO is hoping that people will be active in updating it. There are now around 1,000 camera locations on it and Iuridicum Remedium says that, even so, it is far from complete. Moreover surveillance cameras are also increasingly being placed on school and hospital premises as well as other enclosed public spaces such as hotels, bars and sports facilities where they often invade people’s privacy.

The head of the Office for Protection of Personal Data Igor Němec says this is becoming a big problem.

“At this point the only law that pertains to the problem –with a few exceptions - is the law on protection of private data. According to this legislation you can only install a camera and collect information for protection of property and security reasons.”

According to Mr. Němec the office gets hundreds of complaints about surveillance cameras in hospitals and enclosed spaces where the cameras are ostensibly in aid of security but may also be used to monitor employees. This is not only in violation of the privacy law but also violates the labour code. Hospitals argue that cameras are there to protect patients, which is also unacceptable. And the biggest number of complaints is made in connection with cameras placed in the vicinity of housing estates. The cameras are ostensibly there for security reasons but given their span they could be used to spy on people in their homes. Igor Němec says the country urgently needs proper legislation.

Igor Němec,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“I think it is time Czech politicians and the country’s Parliament addressed the issue. Clearly we need to make up our minds what kind of country we want to live in –whether we want a society monitored at every step by Big Brother or a society of free citizens.“

Institutions which have installed security systems are bound to register them at the Office for Protection of Personal Data. At present there are close to 6,000 of them listed and the office makes regular inspections of how they use the material collected. However there are estimates that in reality this is merely the tip of the iceberg and there could in fact be tens of thousands of cameras around the country.