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The Capture: Does CCTV footage keep us safe or put us in danger?

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CCTV CameraWritten by Ophelia Hollway, Lawyer, Doogue + George Defence Lawyers

The Capture is an ABC iView series set in London that explores the dangers of a world in which CCTV footage is technologically-altered by government security agencies in order to prosecute alleged offenders.

The show’s central characters are Shaun Emery – a soldier facing war crimes from his time in the Middle East and his barrister Hannah Roberts. During the trial, Emery’s solicitor works closely with Roberts in order to show that the case against Emery is fundamentally flawed. Roberts is impressive in court and through cross-examination, manages to demonstrate to the jury that there are serious issues with the video evidence upon which the Crown are relying.

Ultimately, the jury agree with the defence and Emery is acquitted. That evening, Emery and the rest of his legal team congregate at the local taphouse to celebrate their victory. The festivities extend into the early hours before Roberts decides to leave and catch a bus home. Emery follows and is observed on CCTV by safe city operators speaking with Roberts near the bus stop. A bus then drives past the security camera obscuring the pair. The next frame depicts Emery with Roberts in a chokehold dragging her to his vehicle. The car speeds off and Roberts is presumed dead.

The police then swoop on Emery and take him into custody for questioning. He is interviewed by Detective Inspector Rachel Carey and shown the footage that he says never happened. Emery is distraught when he sees his supposed assault and kidnapping of Roberts – the woman who fought for his innocence.

It is not until much later that DI Carey begins to uncover the murky world of CCTV alteration and the part Metropolitan Police Service have played in its use. Carey’s loss of faith in police management leads to her being stood down from the Emery case.

What message is The Capture sending?

The Capture raises questions not only around the capacity for CCTV to be altered but also the ability of arguably excessive CCTV monitoring to curtail our civil rights. In the United Kingdom alone, there are more than six million security cameras monitoring citizens’ everyday lives. Frequently, Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) is being used by both private and public security agencies in order to monitor individuals going about their daily business.

The question that must be asked is who owns this CCTV footage and what are the safeguards in place in terms of its use?

Technological developments

Technology is developing at such a rapid rate that experts predict it won’t be long before camera footage can be manipulated, particularly in an environment involving Artificial Intelligence (AI).

In order to combat the potential concerns around CCTV manipulation, technology must be developed that can detect whether a piece of footage has been altered. Furthermore, security agencies must be overseen by an independent anti-corruption body that has the skills to detect alterations of video evidence.

What’s the situation in Melbourne?

The City of Melbourne has established the Safe City Cameras Program (SCCP) which involves 24-hour monitoring of 65 surveillance cameras dotted across the CBD. Specially trained security contractors monitor these cameras around the clock to ensure that any incidents are detected and reported to police immediately. The cameras are able to zoom in on particular incidents to provide greater clarity in identifying those involved.

The SCCP is subject to protocols outlined in the SCCP Manual which provides guidelines around the way in which cameras are to be used and footage disseminated.

The footage is stored on the central database for a period of 28 days and then destroyed. According to the Manual, the only individuals entitled to view such footage are those connected to the footage in some professional capacity.

Final thoughts

Despite having been considered ‘true’ evidence in the past, IT developments have transformed CCTV footage into a medium that has the potential to be technologically-altered to depict events that never in fact took place. Without proper oversight, the consequences of such alterations could be disastrous.

Government agencies must use the footage available to them in a responsible manner and ensure that there are measures in place to identify the manipulation of footage and eradicate it. Otherwise, there could be false prosecutions, as was the case for Shaun Emery.

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