By Michael Kwet
Michael Kwet is a Visiting Fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. He is the author of Digital Colonialism: US Empire and the New Imperialism in the Global South, and hosts the Tech Empire podcast.
“Beggars” and “vagrants” are not welcome in Parkhurst, South Africa, a mostly white, middle-class suburb of about 5,000 on the outskirts of Johannesburg’s inner city. Criminals are on the prowl, residents warn, and they threaten their neighborhood security. To combat crime, the locals came up with a solution: place CCTV surveillance cameras everywhere.
However, these are not the camera networks of times past. Thanks to advancements in machine learning and AI, CCTV systems are now equipped with sophisticated video analytics that can track a wide range of behaviors, objects, and patterns, in addition to individual faces. Armed with powerful new tech, communities of color can be watched, flagged, policed, and intimidated into submission.
I’ve spent the past several years studying the video surveillance industry in South Africa. During that time, a private corporation called Vumacam has been quietly assembling a “smart” CCTV surveillance network in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Earlier this year, the company announced it would blanket Joburg with 15,000 cameras.
The story of Vumacam goes back more than a decade, with the buildup of a surveillance empire that has capitalized on advances in artificial intelligence, the deployment of high-speed internet to the suburbs, and the monopolistic dynamics of the CCTV industry. The end result is an attempt to roll out an AI-driven, nationwide CCTV network across one of the world’s most racially divided countries…
The driving force behind smart surveillance networks in South Africa is a man named Ricky Croock, the co-founder and CEO of Vumacam. Before Vumacam was formed in 2016, Croock was the CEO of a private security firm, CSS Tactical, which patrolled the streets with armed guards and vehicles, aided by CCTV surveillance. CSS Tactical was among the first companies to take a “proactive” approach to neighborhood security, rather than a “reactive” one that responds to incidents after they occur.
Croock’s first tech innovation was to blanket a handful of suburbs with cameras and integrate video analytics into private security patrols. Around 2008, Croock and CSS Tactical began using software called iSentry in their day-to-day operations.
iSentry was developed for the Australian military to detect “unusual” behavior. It works by fixing a camera to a single spot and letting it film for an extended period of time. Eventually, the software learns what to look for. It issues alarms when it determines something is “abnormal”—like loitering pedestrians or minivans—and prioritizes video streams for review by human operators in a control room…