Zooming in on public security


For some, the growing number of security cameras in public is a reassuring reminder that efforts are being made to make communities safer, but one expert claims Japan must still make better use of such surveillance technology to crack down on crime.

“Considering the massive use of mobile phones in Japanese society and all the portable solutions, it’s evident how behind the times police are (in utilizing forefront technology),” Dr. David Murakami Wood, a lecturer at the University of Newcastle in northern England, told The Japan Times during a recent visit to Tokyo.

An expert on ethics and sociopolitical aspects of new surveillance technology, Murakami Wood pointed out that police in Japan have been notoriously slow in adopting surveillance tactics. He believes the authorities must improve their skills in managing camera footage to make better use of the systems.

He cited the investigation of Briton Lindsay Ann Hawker’s murder last March. Former horticulture student Tatsuya Ichihashi, 28, is being sought in connection with the murder of the 22-year-old Nova language school teacher, whose naked body was found buried in a sand-filled bathtub in his condo.

Ichihashi remains at large after slipping past several police officers near his condo in Chiba Prefecture. But video footage recorded by a security camera installed in his condo’s elevator wasn’t released until more than a month after his getaway.

The British expert, who is also the managing editor of Surveillance and Society, an international journal of surveillance studies, criticized Japanese police for not releasing the videotapes sooner. Such footage, he said, is “undoubtedly useful in capturing fugitives.”

“I don’t want to criticize the police, but in my opinion, I can’t see why they didn’t release it much sooner,” Murakami Wood said. He noted British police immediately released video images of terrorists involved in attacks in London in 2005.

While it’s possible that Japanese authorities took time analyzing the data, Murakami Wood speculates police were either deliberately slow in releasing the images or overlooked the evidence earlier in the investigation.

However, Murakami Wood said cameras alone cannot deter crimes.

“There is no way CCTVs (closed circuit televisions) could have prevented (Hawker’s death),” he said, acknowledging the slaying would have occurred regardless of the number of cameras operating in the area.

Though privacy issues and abuse of video footage remain concerns, he said the use of such cameras is expected to grow worldwide.

According to Murakami Wood, Britain leads the world in the number of public surveillance cameras. Over the past 15 years, the British government has pushed for increased monitoring of street activity, a response in part to the activity of soccer hooligans as well as the terrorist acts of the Irish Republican Army.

Today, there are approximately 4.2 million surveillance cameras in the U.K. — a number Murakami Wood disputes. He believes there are actually more than 5 million in operation. It has been reported that a person can be captured by as many as 300 cameras in a day in London.

Despite its low crime rate by international standards, Japan is also seeing an explosion of surveillance cameras on the street, said Murakami Wood, who was a visiting fellow at Waseda University in Tokyo last year.

The number of CCTVs in Japan rose in the runup to the 2002 World Cup, when police set up security cameras on the street to prevent soccer hooligans from committing acts of vandalism after the matches.

That year, the Metropolitan Police Department set up 50 surveillance cameras in Tokyo’s Kabukicho nightlife district. Improved technology, and a surge in pickpockets, also led to the spread of CCTVs.

“The number of cameras operated by the Japanese government (on the streets) is in the hundreds today,” Murakami Wood said. The number, he added, would reach the hundreds of thousands if private security cameras were included.

Despite the sense of Big Brother some may associate with street surveillance cameras, they also have a positive effect by increasing the sense of security and accountability in society, he said. Video footage also makes for powerful evidence in criminal trials.

But Japanese authorities must first learn to make better use of such technology, Murakami Wood said. “Camera footage, in many cases, is only as good as the people who are watching it.”