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