Seoul residents have another pair of eyes watching their backs

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Seoul residents have another pair of eyes watching their backs

Imagine a 35-year-old man named Mr. Kim, one of the thousands of people who call the Gangnam district of Seoul home.
As soon as Mr. Kim leaves his house, a substantial amount of whatever he does, wherever he goes in the streets, is being watched. Is he a criminal? Not necessarily.
Last August, under a directive from the National Police Agency sent to local governments all over the country, the Gangnam district government installed 272 closed-circut television (CCTV) cameras to monitor residents.
“Criminals these days are getting smarter, and it has become difficult to find evidence to track them down,” says Song Gap-su, division head at the Gangnam police station. He said the cameras will make finding and prosecuting criminals much easier.
A typical day at the main monitoring center provides plenty of excitement. On Nov. 9, at 10 p.m., monitors quickly zoomed in on a section of the large electronic map spread over six 125-centimenter screens. Someone had pressed one of the “emergency buttons” placed throughout the neighborhood.
Camera number three in Yeoksam neighborhood showed a man chasing a woman in the street. A mere five minutes later, two police officers dispatched to the scene were questioning the two people. On this occasion, it turned out to be a misunderstanding.
The next day at 9 a.m., a camera installed in front of an elementary school in Sinsa-dong found a black vehicle with plates from a different city. The cameras can rotate 360 degrees and zoom in to read a license plate from 100 meters away.
“Zoom camera 14 in Sinsa-dong,” someone in the monitoring center yells out. A quick check on the plate number revealed that the car had been stolen recently in Gwangju.
Police were sent to investigate, but found that the vehicle had been abandoned.
Cameras focus on certain areas depending on what time it is. During the day, monitors at the center pay close attention to people and cars around schools.
At night, the focus shifts to bars and people leaving them who may have had too much to drink.
Lee Myeong-jeong, head supervisor at the center, says, “When we find middle or high school students smoking, we sometimes send police officers to scold them.”
The staff working in the monitoring center includes 15 regular monitors, three police officers, three assistant policemen, three security guards and the supervisor.
Separated into three teams, they take turns monitoring the screens 24 hours a day. All of the monitors are women, because police think it might make people uncomfortable to be watched by men.
Monitors vary in age from housewives to college graduates who want to become police officers. But they all have one thing in common: good vision. All monitors undergo special training to learn how to distinguish car models.
One big headache for monitors is what the police have nicknamed “shepherd boys,” who, for kicks, ring the emergency bells installed under CCTVs. Fortunately, such incidents are on the decline.
When the cameras were first installed, more than 50 crank calls were recorded every day.
Korea is not the first country in the world to come up with the idea of monitoring its own citizens in this fashion.
In Britain, there are more than 4 million cameras installed in 500 cities throughout the country. The British government has invested 60 million pounds ($111 million) to build the system in crime-ridden districts and areas where there are frequent traffic accidents.
In 1995, in the Paris suburb of Levallois, about 340 cameras were installed in crime zones and near highways.
The cameras are connected to dispatch centers at police stations that notify officers in the field in the event of an emergency.
Not everyone is happy being watched. Civic groups point out that the cameras watch individuals without their consent, and can be considered an invasion of privacy.

by Son Hae-yong
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