South Africa’s private surveillance machines are fueling a digital apartheid regime

“Vumacam’s technology is honed for the purpose of crime prevention and is therefore not capable of mass surveillance nor is it intended,” Pearman said. “The concern of the so-called ‘activists’ is cited as propaganda that we consider willfully malicious, defamatory and without any basis of fact.”

2 people on their phone on Vilakazi street.


And although crime temporarily dropped during the pandemic, it has exploded once again. Many of the companies we interviewed argued that this justifies investing more in surveillance technology. “Crime honed surveillance infrastructure is key to containing, preventing and understanding the crime that currently hinders investment and economic growth, which is so critical to delivering,” says Pearman. employment and poverty alleviation.

“We have seen that surveillance technologies are properly installed and have analytics as part of proactive rather than reactive solutions,” said Jan Erasmus, head of monitoring and analytics at NEC XON. , has a huge impact on criminal activities.

Erasmus said security companies are now working to enhance their facial recognition capabilities to identify suspected criminals. The technology relies on a database of wanted individuals’ faces to compare with faces extracted from surveillance footage. A security vendor, Bidvest Protea Coin, is working with NEC XON to deploy a system that uses 48,000 photographs of suspects wanted for anything from rhino poaching and abalone to Bomb ATMs and steal base station batteries. Both companies hope to share the system with the rest of the security industry as well as with banks and government players.

But there have been cases where facial recognition was used on a database of the faces of individuals with no criminal record. In 2016, when economically disadvantaged black students at universities around the country protested high tuition fees, NEC XON collected the faces of protesters from photos and videos that were going viral. transmission on WhatsApp and social media; it then compares them with the university’s database of student ID photos. Erasmus says the aim is not to stop protesters but to determine if they are students (most are not, he says) and to prevent damage to university property, estimated a total of 786 million rand ($52 million) nationwide.

But five years later, when protests broke out again, students said they felt they were being criminalized. Ntyatyambo Volsaka, a 19-year-old law student and activist at the University of the Witwatersrand, said police arrived with riot gear, tear gas and rubber bullets, and they openly filmed the students at close range. to collect “evidence”. .

“We are trying to make sure everyone gets an education,” he said, “but the police treat us like animals.” Erasmus said that NEC XON did not assist with police surveillance during the 2021 protests.

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