500,000 cameras to watch Chongqing

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Nearly 500,000 surveillance cameras will watch public places in Chongqing by 2012, in accordance with a new government initiative.

By installing new cameras and updating surveillance systems, city officials will see an improvement in video quality. Also, the total number of cameras will reach 497,000 by 2012, city government officials said.

The plan aims to improve public security and enhance police capabilities in handling emergencies, thus advancing a "Safe Chongqing," a police source said. This vision is the government's top agenda and has been pushed forward by the unprecedented dragnet of Chongqing gangs since June.

The ongoing anti-gang operation, which had arrested 385 and prosecuted 327 people for their suspected involvement in gangs this year, was overwhelmingly supported by the public and has instilled the citizens' confidence in the government, surveys showed.

"Under the current backdrop and the irreversible trend of cracking down on gangs, it is not hard to understand why the public has favored the installation of so many controversial surveillance cameras," said professor Fang Ling, director of the law research center at the Chongqing Academy of Social Sciences.

New regulations stipulate that six types of private areas, such as hotel rooms and dormitories, should be exempt from the lens.

The city already has 310,000 video cameras rolling, but the quality of the video is questionable and standards are not yet consistent, according to a Chongqing Daily report.

Random interviews by China Daily of dozens of people in the street showed that many underestimated the number of cameras already in operation in the city. Some were astounded to learn that cameras, besides electronic ones deployed to photograph vehicles violating traffic rules, even existed in public places.

"Is 500,000 too many? Are we being watched now?" said a 28-year-old freelancer, Hu Ming, who, among others, thought the number of functioning ones was 10,000 at maximum.

But most of them said they don't think cameras will violate their privacy.

The majority of the interviewees said the cameras are for the good to collect evidence against thieves, robbers and criminals.

"What's the big deal? The cameras do not watch you exclusively. They record everyone in public," said Xue Shiyu, an undergraduate student from Chongqing University.

"When in crowded public places, I don't think it's annoying to be watched by one more pair of eyes behind screens," she added.

Calling for an enhanced awareness of privacy, Fang, however, said people must constantly monitor their privacy to make sure their rights are not violated.

"People may not know that their behaviors, dress styles and even their inelegant looks when sleeping on buses is protected privacy and that they are vulnerable to be exploited by people who watch them," Fang said.

One example of the exploitation was reported in January 2008 when a video clip of a couple hugging and kissing in a Shanghai subway station, with their faces recognizable, was circulated on the Internet for others' amusement. The video was taken by three subway staff members, who used mobile phones to record the footage.

"It takes time for people to build an understanding of the right to privacy. We must make sure that surveillance cameras are not abused," Fang said.

An expatriate in Chongqing was a bit worried about the installment of more cameras.

"A citizen's right of privacy could be compromised. It is not comfortable to be monitored while you are shopping or dining in a restaurant, for instance," said Tony Spenser, an Englishman in his 60s.

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