In South Korea, CCTV Keeps a Very Close Eye

Nov. 7, 2006
From stopping bank robberies to recovering stolen cars, country's surveillance cameras hard at work

Chong, a desperate 29-year-old with a nose for trouble, thought he had everything planned to pull off one of the boldest bank robberies in recent memory.

He successfully stole a handgun and bullets from a private shooting range in northern Seoul after inspecting the site several times days in advance.

He put even more time into studying his target bank, a Kookmin Bank branch in Yoksam-dong, southern Seoul, locating security guards, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, alarm bells and the private banking center he identified as the weak spot.

Chong said he followed Hwang, a 48-year-old manager of the private banking center, for nearly two weeks to find out where he lived, and where he went to eat. He recited that information to Hwang at the bank with a gun in his hand, later walking off with more than 105 million won in broad daylight.

With all that preparation, Chong didn't expect to be sitting in a police station explaining himself less than 48 hours later.

Chong wore dark sunglasses to cover his face from the CCTV cameras at the bank's entrance and halls. Little did he know that the bank had many more security cameras, hidden from sight and taking pictures of his face at various angles.

Police were able to e-mail the images of Chong's face to other police stations nationwide and reveal them to the media. Chong had to give himself up.

Chong's case is just another story in a society where roads are laced with security and traffic cameras, and the government recommends drivers attach electronic tags to their cars, which can track their movements.

Although Koreans display a general acceptance of constant surveillance, critics urge authorities to take a harder look at privacy concerns, questioning their ability to manage and control the massive amount of private information gathered through the cameras.

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, there are more than 7,300 cameras installed in the city for crime surveillance, traffic congestion, speeding and other purposes. Considering that the city has about 10 million taxpayers, this means that there is a camera for every 1,300 of them.

And the number of cameras is expected to grow. The city government earlier this year announced it will spend 28.4 billion won ($29 million) over the coming four years to install two to four CCTV cameras in each of the city's 568 elementary schools to protect students from crime and peer-to-peer violence, and also to monitor traffic.

Ward offices, such as the Kangnam-gu office in southern Seoul, which already has nearly 400 CCTV cameras in the district, are planning to tighten citizen surveillance by adding more cameras to eliminate crime.

"Seoul is now a 'heaven' for CCTV cameras. This has taken place despite the failure of authorities to present proof that a higher number of cameras results in reduced crime rates," said lawmaker Choi Kyoo-shik of the governing Uri Party. He pointed out that statistics of five major crimes - homicide, robbery, rape, burglary and aggravated assault - in Kangnam are not much different now than they were prior to 2004, when the ward office first installed the cameras.

CCTV cameras are not the only surveillance method used to track crimes. With seven out of 10 Koreans using mobile phones, tracking call records and locating the owners of the handset has become a convenient method in fighting crime.

In February, police caught a 25-year-old nightclub employee who stole a car of one of his customers by tracking the location of his mobile phone, just seven hours after the theft.

Police are also able to monitor the use of chip-embedded credit cards, used for cashless payment on subways and buses. The cards record the movement of the user, and track the IP addresses of computer users suspected of criminal acts.

Critics are also voicing concerns over Seoul City's traffic-control plan based on installing electronic devices in passenger cars to track their movements.

Since the start of the year, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has been granting a 5 percent discount in automobile taxes and a 2.7 percent discount in auto insurance fees for drivers participating in the 'No Driving Day' campaign, which requires them to leave their vehicles at home for one day a week.

The drivers participating in the program are required to install electronic tags on the front windows of their cars, which allows traffic authorities to track their movement.

The electronic tags attached to cars, enabled with radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, will broadcast information from the cars to readers the authorities have installed at major traffic points in the city.

Although city authorities had been downplaying privacy concerns, stressing that participation in the programs are strictly voluntary, many residents complain of being pressured by their ward offices to attach the electronic tags to their cars.