Vumacam defends Joburg smart camera network

Read time 5min 20sec

South Africa's leading video management provider, Vumacam, says its system is not being used to profile black poor people as criminals in suburbs the company operates in.

This afternoon, the company issued a statement to “clarify misinformation circulating via various platforms and media outlets regarding the Vumacam integrated smart camera network”.

Founded in 2017, Vumacam is an independent private company formed through a joint venture between Vumatel and Imfezeko.

Vumacam says it does not have facial recognition technology enabled in its street cameras, nor does it profile people, and it takes data security and privacy seriously.

The company faced intense criticism in recent weeks after international media reported it is building a nationwide surveillance network that scrutinises peoples’ movements for “unusual behaviour.”

The report by VICE says Vumacam has been quietly assembling a “smart” CCTV surveillance network in the suburbs of Johannesburg, which is now driving artificial intelligence-powered apartheid in South Africa.

“CCTV behaviour detection systems would disproportionately flag black and brown people, because AI is often imbued with bias by the small and homogeneous groups of engineers who create it,” reads the VICE report.

Facial recognition

Vumacam denies this, saying some commentators have gone so far as to allege the cameras utilise facial recognition technology to monitor private citizens' comings and goings.

“We can categorically confirm this is not true. Our street cameras are not facial recognition cameras and we do not utilise facial recognition technology in any of our Vumacam street cameras. They are fixed cameras that do not zoom or tilt. They monitor a fixed public area.”

Vumacam is not building databases on any particular citizen and has no intention of doing so at any point in the future, the company notes. It adds that while all number plates passing a camera are scanned, only if the plate is present on a database of known vehicles of interest (for instance the SAPS Unicode database of stolen and wanted vehicles) will an alert be generated to the security company.

Once this alert is received, it says, can it access the image and decide on the appropriate course of action.

“Users of the system in the security company are authenticated through our firewalled network, in real-time. Whilst the security company is able to rewind, fast forward and playback footage, they are unable to download and store the footage. Licence plate numbers are not tracked unless they are involved in a verified incident.”

The company says the majority of its customers use iSentry software and the system is completely non-biased.

“It is not pre-programmed to identify race. Unlike many other behavioural analytics software, iSentry is one of only a few that do not have any pre-programming of what is deemed to be unusual behaviour, thus removing any forms of programmed-in bias.

“It utilises unsupervised artificial intelligence to monitor pixels, so if it detects unusual formations of pixels that are different to what it observes 24/7, it will send an alert to the security company control room where the company can monitor the situation to determine if it requires intervention,” says Vumacam.

It explains that the alerts could be triggered, for example, if someone trips over as they walk, or someone being attacked and mugged in the street.

“Both incidents will generate an alert. The alert can then be looked at by the security company and either be dismissed or monitored to determine if medical attention is required, while the other can trigger further actions to apprehend a criminal.

“The software used minimises human participation in the monitoring process, and therefore minimises human bias such as race or gender.”

Smart camera network

Vumacam says it only built the infrastructure to host an integrated smart camera network to assist with crime-fighting initiatives across the City of Johannesburg.

Ricky Croock, Vumacam CEO, explains: “We acknowledge that the country is grappling with a crime pandemic and are confident that our integrated network of street CCTV cameras will go a long way to tackle crime. Not only as a deterrent but also to effectively apprehend perpetrators and do our part, working collaboratively with law enforcement, to get criminals off the streets.”

The company insists it values privacy.

“At Vumacam, we believe you should be concerned about data privacy. It is for this reason that all our clients go through a rigorous vetting process to ensure they are using the data for the right reasons and that they adhere to the strictest data protection protocols. We have partnered with the best in the world to ensure data is protected.

“We are not only compliant in terms of the Protection of Personal Information Act, but we have taken it a step further to go beyond the global standards of General Data Protection Regulation.”

This is not the first Vumacam camera network to come under scrutiny.

In September, a leading academic came out strongly criticising Vumacam for its massive roll out of private security network in the City of Johannesburg, saying it lacked consultations, and residents should have a say in what happens to their data.

Professor Jane Duncan from the Journalism Department at the University of Johannesburg said the ethical and legal standards are necessary and the Protection of Personal Information Act should apply to both cases.

“Aside from the legal issues, before embarking on privacy-invasive projects, the City of Johannesburg really should have developed a policy and consulted the public on it, so that residents could have an opportunity to shape what happens to their data,” said Duncan.

Additionally, she told ITWeb: “A private mass surveillance network with inadequate public oversight or rule-making (which is what Vumacam is) is a recipe for disaster. Imagine what could happen if personal information about your daily movements in and out of your house got into the wrong hands.”

See also