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Saturday, March 4, 2006

Private surveillance cameras on the rise

Crime-fearing citizens monitoring the streets, but what about privacy?

Staff writers

Is it neighborhood watch or Big Brother?

News photo
A surveillance camera set up by Myohoji Temple at its gate in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, operates around the clock.

The affluent Seijo residential area in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward is the latest in a growing number of communities that are encouraging residents to install their own surveillance cameras to watch the streets.

And recently, more private citizens have been taking that advice.

"I handle the (camera) images in a socially acceptable manner," said Kim Hui Mook. "I let my neighbors know that we had set up a security camera. Many of my neighbors have installed cameras."

Kim installed his security camera in January 2005. He said his neighborhood had been the target of a rising number of purse snatchers, sneak thieves and car vandals, and he wanted to do something about it.

Kim's camera, which saves images for 10 days, and more than 100 other citizens' cameras installed at 55 locations in the neighborhood, is evidence that worries of invasion of privacy come second to fears of crime. And those fears may be well-founded in Setagaya, where in late 2000 a family of four was murdered in their home by an intruder who has yet to be caught.

2004 saw 410 break-ins and thefts, 83 purse snatchings and 84 assaults and robberies reported in the 22.3 sq.-km area, nearly half of Setagaya Ward.

The Seijo Police Station, which covers the area, is encouraging the private surveillance.

In December, it began asking residents and businesses to set up their own security cameras on their roofs to monitor passersby. Police also help with leasing the cameras, whose prices start at 10,000 yen a month.

Despite the extra cost -- coming on top of rising taxes -- people don't seem to mind.

The residents check the images themselves and police will ask them to hand over the pictures if they believe a crime has been committed, said Kakumi Nakamura, deputy chief at the police station. Each camera's location is indicated by a sticker on a nearby utility pole.

"The cameras will prevent crime by catching stalkers and burglars before they break in," Nakamura said.

He expects cameras in the area to double to about 200 by the end of the year.

Kyoichi Kobayashi, the resident priest at Myohoji Temple, has set up four cameras at the temple's two gates in response to the police campaign.

Those are in addition to cameras set up five years ago inside the grounds to deter drunks from hanging around and people who might be thinking of stealing money from the offertory boxes.

"I think the new cameras can help increase security in the neighborhood," Kobayashi said, adding that some children had been flashed by a man near the temple two years ago.

The new cameras are on 24 hours a day to record vehicles and passersby. The priest said the images are kept for a week.

The trend of having your own security cameras is growing nationwide.

Proponents of the monitors say their presence reduces crime and police statistics support their claim.

Since February 2002, 50 police surveillance cameras have been recording activity on the streets of the Kabukicho entertainment district in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward.

The number of street crimes in the district fell 23 percent year-on-year to 541 cases in 2004, according to police, and the number for the first six months of 2005 stood at 218, down 8 percent from the same period the previous year.

The Metropolitan Police Department also began taping the busy streets in Shibuya Ward's Udagawacho district with 10 cameras in March 2004, followed by 20 similar cameras installed around JR Ikebukuro Station's west exit.

Police say the frequency of crimes has fallen since the cameras were set up.

"For people who want to protect themselves and their children, the desire to prevent crime outweighs worries over the infringement of privacy," said Masahide Maeda, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University School of Law.

Cameras do prevent crime, he said, but added that communities must set rules about the use of the images they capture and people must adhere to them.

But some are asking at what price does all this added security come.

Privately operated cameras are a global phenomenon -- London and Dallas being two of the most recent cities. London already reportedly has one of the world's highest levels of public surveillance cameras.

Promoters of private security cameras "are stirring up people's fears of crime unnecessarily to make them turn to such devices," said Yasuhiko Tajima, a Sophia University journalism professor and representative of the Tokyo-based Group Against Surveillance Society.

"Surveillance cameras indiscriminately tape passersby and no one knows how the information is being used."

There are no laws or regulations on the use of surveillance cameras or on the images they capture, Tajima said, noting that if just police and certain community groups are the parties that decide how such images are handled, this poses the risk of invasion of privacy.

"People should be more calm in dealing with their fears about crime. They should not turn to the easy solution (of using cameras) without thinking things through first," Tajima said.

Some Seijo residents agree.

One 54-year-old woman said she is worried whether the camera owners will use the images properly.

"It's OK if they watch the images when something (bad) has happened. But I don't want them to use (the images) otherwise," the woman said.

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