Security 'eyes' are blind

Army commander-in-chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha hit the nail right on the head when he said recently the closed circuit television (CCTV) system in the restive deep South needs to be overhauled to become centralised and more systematic.

Security officials patrol in front of a fire-damaged surveillance camera on Thasab-Lammai Road in Muang district of Yala province. Arsonists torched 116 cameras in seven districts of the province earlier this month.

His remark came one day after vandals believed to be linked to militant gangs or hired hands in the pay of a business entity involved in a conflict over a CCTV auction _ as suspected by Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung _ went on a rampage, torching 116 CCTV cameras in seven districts of Yala province on Jan 14.

Gen Prayuth, however, missed the point when he said corruption in connection with the procurement of surveillance cameras by state and local agencies should not be mentioned at all because it would be pointless as the crooks will never change.

Procurement of materials by means of open bids or special bids by state or local agencies has long been rife with bribery, with the asking kickback rate demanded by crooked politicians _ according to some businessmen who are familiar with this malpractice _ reaching as much as 40% of a project's cost.

Procurement of CCTV cameras for use in the far South is no exception.

It was rife with corruption, but the problem largely went unreported or unnoticed.

Many surveillance cameras installed by various local governments such as tambon administration organisations (TAO) were cheap Chinese products which failed to work properly. Some of them were found to be just shells _ that is, without a recording device.

The CCTV system installed in the three southernmost provinces is in a mess and ineffective in deterring or preventing violence perpetrated by gangs or outlaws.

Most of the cameras are useless as they are not linked to a monitor. So when a violent incident such as a bomb attack or a drive-by shooting takes place in the vicinity close to where the cameras are installed, officials have to go to the spot to retrieve the recording chip for examination.

Many cameras installed by local bodies are attached to power poles and hang so low, they can easily be torched.

The common method used in most incidents is to wrap the tube of a motorcycle tyre with cloth soaked in petrol, set it alight and hang the burning tube on the camera with the help of a bamboo pole.

As for the small number of real cameras which are connected wirelessly to control monitors set up at police stations or district offices to provide real-time images, they are also useless because few people monitor them.

Since most cameras are not monitored or are not linked to the monitors, liaison among the agencies which independently set up their own surveillance systems such as the Office of the Interior Permanent Secretary, the Provincial Administration Department and the TAOs is out of the question.

The forward command of the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) has its own CCTV system but for its own security only.

Latest reports suggest the Office of the Education Permanent Secretary has its own plan to install CCTV cameras in high-risk schools in the far South.

Why should the Education Ministry get involved in security affairs? Is it because it is concerned for the safety of teachers? Or is it because of money?

The current system under which each agency makes its own procurement of equipment and operates the system independently of anyone else should be overhauled and brought under one roof.

All cameras must be of high quality and linked wirelessly to control monitors at each police station or district office.

All control monitors must be manned around the clock with personnel able to detect suspicious activities.

It is indeed disappointing that very little attention has been placed on the recruitment and training of personnel to monitor surveillance systems.

Security agencies currently plan their own security systems separately.

Last but not least, all CCTV procurement projects by state or local agencies should be put on hold until there is a clear-cut policy from the government about which organisation should be responsible for surveillance.

A good example can be drawn from the British system.

With over 4 million CCTV cameras installed between 1996 and 2006, Britons are thought to be the most watched citizens in the western world.

It is claimed each citizen might be seen on 300 cameras a day, but half of the camera footage is unsuitable to convict criminals in court.

But the biggest problem with the British system is that it is passive _ that is, few circuits are monitored by anyone, so crimes committed in front of the cameras are not noticed until long after they occur.

Installing surveillance cameras is just half of the job. The other half, which is far more important, is to get qualified people to monitor them.

Veera Prateepchaikul is a former Editor, Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Veera Prateepchaikul
Position: Former Editor