Recent newspaper reports have revealed that the National Police Agency plans to build “electronic city walls” throughout Taiwan by installing surveillance cameras nationwide over the next five years. The Ministry of the Interior has also launched a NT$1 billion (US$29.5 million) project to integrate surveillance camera systems, and Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) announced on April 8 that his government would spend NT$1.6 billion to install 13,000 “intelligent,” high-performance cameras in the city.
According to Hau, the cameras would not violate people’s privacy, because only government agencies would be able to view the recorded footage.
The widespread installation of surveillance cameras in Taiwan dates back to the ministry’s 1998 “national community safety maintenance project” and later the “safety-net project,” under which numerous communities and boroughs were subsidized to install security cameras. Under pressure following a series of major criminal cases, the ministry hurriedly implemented the projects. There was no discussion about regulations to govern surveillance, nor were complementary measures put in place. In fact, the installation of security cameras at major intersections and in housing communities throughout Taiwan had no legal basis until 2003, when the Police Duties Enforcement Act (警察職權行使法) came into effect.
We have no way of knowing exactly how many cases are resolved each year in Taiwan with the help of surveillance cameras. As to the civil rights implications, there has to date been no serious discussion of the matter. Probably everyone has experienced some clumsy moments in front of a camera, and no one would feel at ease knowing that they are being videotaped or monitored.
From the point of view of constitutional guarantees of people’s basic rights, the first victims of ubiquitous camera surveillance are likely to be people’s freedoms of expression, assembly and association. If people know they will be filmed when attending a demonstration, they may be less willing to participate.
The Computer-Processed Personal Data Protection Act (電腦處理個人資料保護法), which deals with the collection, management and use of personal data, provides no clear rules on surveillance cameras. Article 10 of the Police Duties Enforcement Act states that police can install security cameras for the purpose of maintaining public security in public places, or anywhere the public can go, where crimes may be committed. However, the definition of a “place where the public can go” is vague and open to widely different interpretations.
Taipei City’s regulations on the management of video surveillance systems stipulate that the police are in charge of surveillance. With police approval, borough chiefs may set up video cameras and are responsible for managing the surveillance cameras they install. In practice, however, when members of the public wish to view surveillance recordings, for example following an accident, they are often obstructed by police. It is unclear who has the right to view video material recorded by the overlapping surveillance camera systems installed by borough chiefs and the police. Who is entitled to process and use these recordings? Who is supposed to manage them? The cameras are there to monitor the public, but what safeguards do members of the public have?
Once there are video surveillance systems in public places nationwide, will there be clear official signs to inform people that they are being monitored? Filming people without their knowledge might constitute a violation of their right not to have their personal data collected without being informed.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s eight principles of privacy with regard to personal information, government as well as private bodies must have reasonable justification for collecting data on an individual, and must seek the consent of the individual concerned. People not only have the right to know when someone is recording information about them, but also to view the records and correct errors in them.
In the UK, for example, video surveillance is regulated by the Data Protection Act, Human Rights Act and Crime and Disorder Act. Those installing surveillance systems must also inform the Information Commissioner’s Office, explaining the purpose of the surveillance, stating the number of cameras and so on.
In Taiwan, on the other hand, examination and approval of surveillance systems is done by police stations. In the UK there are regulations governing data collectors and organizations or interest groups using video surveillance systems.
Until such time as a personal data protection bill is passed into law, and given that there is no information commissioner, Taiwan will lack sufficient regulatory measures covering the various ways in which information about the public is collected.
There is a fine line between “protection” and “control.” What is the true purpose of the planned nationwide surveillance system — ensuring public safety, or exercising total social control? Will it constitute an invasion of people’s privacy? Those in power say it won’t, but that is not enough to put our minds at rest.
Chiu E-ling is director of media and publications of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR). Liu Ching-yi is an associate professor of law in the Graduate Institute of National Development at National Taiwan University and an executive board member of the TAHR.
TRANSLATED BY EDDY CHANG AND JULIAN CLEGG
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