They’ll be watching you.
In public parks, shopping centers, highways, beaches and at the border, they’ll be recording your every move.
The Arias administration last week launched an ambitious $18 million plan to install 3,000 cameras around the country to monitor, and hopefully prevent, crime in public places.
The Public Security Ministry and Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) will put together the resources and technical knowledge to execute the plan, which Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal says will put Costa Rica “at the vanguard of security in Latin America.”
“We want to have a 21st century police force with the best technology possible to reduce crime,” Berrocal said.
The cameras, to be put up next year, are meant to target mostly robbery and theft, which have skyrocketed 700% in the past 17 years, according to the Justice Ministry. The vast majority of theft and robbery cases go unpunished here (TT, Aug. 31).
The cameras are expected to have other benefits as well.
“They will allow us to establish whether (police) are doing their jobs effectively,” Berrocal said.
The plan, to be financed with a loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), has raised questions about privacy in a traditionally peaceful country that is beginning to grapple with a growing crime problem. A recent U.N. report found that although Costa Rica’s crime problem has increased, the fear that people harbor here about crime surpasses the reality of the problem, which could make Costa Rica less tolerant of individual liberty and human rights (TT,May 11).
Jorge Obando, from the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), said erecting cameras is no different than increasing the police presence.
“What about having a living policeman there? Isn’t he looking with his eyes? Right now, because of the size of the city, you can’t have policemen on every block,” he said.
Marvin Carvajal, professor of constitutional law at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), agreed that the initiative, as written, does not infringe on privacy rights. But, he said, the system could be abused. If the images fall into the wrong hands, he said, they could be used for extortion or bribery.
“The Ministry has to be really rigorous,” he said. “It has to write strict protocols to make sure the system is used for legitimate purposes,” such as crime investigation.
Living Behind Bars
President Oscar Arias has made crime one of his administration’s top priorities, promising to increase the National Police force by 40%, to 14,000 by 2010.
Berrocal and Arias signed the decree to implement the camera plan Oct. 17, while promising that Costa Ricans’ rights to privacy would be protected, according to a Casa Presidencial press release.
“Costa Ricans are used to living behind bars,” said ICE president Pedro Pablo Quirós, referring to security gates used at private homes and businesses throughout the country. “Hopefully these cameras will bring down about 10% of those bars in the capital. That would be a great achievement.”
The cameras will be connected to ICE’s telecom network and will be monitored by police agents around the clock at an ICE office in Tibás, north of San José. Cameras will be installed on light posts and out-of-the-way places where vandals won’t be able to reach them, according to Orlando Cascante, the ICE technician in charge of the project.
The footage will be only for the trained eyes of a few National Police, who will review the cameras for evidence in criminal investigations as well as police misconduct. Prosecutors and state investigators must have a judicial order to see footage, according to the decree.
The decree requires that the Ministry put up signs in areas with cameras to inform residents they’re being watched.
UCR’s Carvajal applauds these safeguards. But he says the decree is too rigid.
For example, he said, the decree allows the images to be used only in criminal cases, not civil, family or labor cases. Further, he said, the decree allows the police to intervene only when images show a possible violation of the law. That means the cameras could not be used to identify and help, say, a lost man with Alzheimer’s disease, Carvajal added.
Still, he said, the initiative will help the country fight crime.While the camera system can be abused, he said, it carries no more risk than giving police officers firearms.
“Every time we create something to protect people against crime, there is some risk,” he said. “We just have to control it.”