South Africa’s private surveillance machine is fueling a digital apartheid
This story is part of MIT Technology Review’s series on AI colonialism. It is the idea that artificial intelligence has created a new colonial order. The MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program supported it. Read the introduction to this series.
The cameras are not there yet. But the fiber is already there.
Thami Nakisi points out the black box perched on a utility pole along a street that was once home to two Nobel Peace Prize laureates : South Africa’s first Black president, Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid activist, Desmond Tutu.
It always happens this way, Nkosi says. The fiber first, then the surveillance cameras. Without reliable connectivity, the cameras will not work unless they are able to send their video feeds back into a control room that can be monitored by algorithms and humans.
This is Vilakazi Street, a historic suburb in Johannesburg. It is home to a unique surveillance model that has been influenced by the global surveillance industry. It is said to be fueling a digital apartheid, and destroying people’s democratic freedoms.
Five years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. The city’s infrastructure and existing video analytics were not able to support the sending and processing of the required footage. The fiber coverage improved, AI capabilities improved, and companies from abroad began to import the most recent surveillance technologies into the country. The high-crime environment put pressure on the local security industry led to the acceptance of the variety of options.
The result has been the rapid establishment of a centralized, coordinated, completely privatized mass surveillance operation. Vumacam, the company building the nationwide CCTV network, already has over 6,600 cameras and counting, more than 5,000 of which are concentrated in Joburg. It feeds video footage into security rooms across the country. These use AI tools such as license plate recognition to track movement and trace individuals.
Over the years, experts have been arguing that artificial intelligence is resembling colonial history. The unrestricted deployment of AI surveillance in South Africa is just one example of how a technology that promised to bring people into the future, but threatens to make them return to the past, as evidenced by the colonial legacies.
Two streets over from Vilakazi, with its touristy polish, the rest of Soweto–a predominantly Black township–is still poor and surrounded by hills formed from the toxic waste of the gold mining industry.
Nkosi, a Sowetan born and bred, has spent 15 years fighting against all manner of injustices–gender-based violence, lack of water and sanitation, and, most recently, the mass surveillance that threatens civil liberties. As we drive past the toxic heaps, he sounds more amused that bitter.
“I’m surprised I haven’t died yet,” he says.
Thus far Soweto has been spared the cameras, precisely because it is poor. Vumacam originally put them where it could find paying clients. These installations are visible as narrow streets give way to highways and highways to wealthy areas. They are steely gray poles with thick fat disks in the middle. Clusters of CCTV cameras hang like bats on the ceiling, their eyes fixed on the roads.
By the time we reach Rosebank (a prestigious suburb of Johannesburg), the poles have sprung from concrete faster than we can count. Nkosi stops at a mall to gaze at the latest fixture. It is a quadruple-sized camera.
“That is the first time–that big, big, big thing–that is the first time I’ve seen it,” he sputters with growing animation. He speculates that this is facial recognition. This means that the camera could record video at a high enough resolution to allow such technology to work. “Jesus Christ. No way
When asked about this speculation, Vumacam said it doesn’t use facial identification and won’t consider using it until the technology has been adequately regulated. “We don’t believe that facial recognition technology (from any provider), is reliable enough to ethical use,” Cathryn Perman, a spokesperson for Vumacam, said.
NECXON, the South African subsidiary to the world’s biggest facial recognition provider, claims that they had been in talks for two years about adding this feature to Vumacam. However, it adds that the cameras aren’t suitable for the technology. This is confirmed by Vumacam.
So maybe it’s coming. It could be. This is the problem with privatized public surveillance. It’s hard to know.
The first thing Rob Nichols wants to show off is the control room. The CEO of private security company AI Surveillance leads you down a hall to a room with screens.
The screens stream footage from the cameras that the company has hired to monitor the city. They are also used for entertainment purposes. The real action happens below, on two rows of computers, where employees monitor Vumacam’s Proof 360 software platform.
Rather than display dozens of video streams at once, Proof 360 uses AI and other analytics to show only the footage that triggers security alerts. These systems include detection of unusual activity and license plate recognition.
The latter is provided by iSentry, which originally created it for the Australian military. The software trains on 100 hours of footage so each camera can learn “normal” behavior, and then it flags anything deemed out of the ordinary. Additional hard-coded rules can be added to each camera. It can also be programmed with zones that cars should not stop in or barriers that people should not cross.
At a monitoring station in the first row, the alerts appear one by one on a security worker’s screen. One alert shows a man being flagged for running, another for texting while standing in the hall, and a third for walking too close by a car. Each one is reviewed by the operator and a “Dismiss” button is clicked on each. A comment box is also available. The button marked “Escalate
” allows for an escalated alert to be sent back to the second row. There, a dispatch team coordinates a response according to the alert type and client’s instructions. Sometimes, this means sending a text to an on-site security guard in order to expel loiterers. Sometimes it is calling the police to make a suspect criminal a suspect.
Nichols points to a wanted-car alert, which has pulled in information from a database that the South African Police Service, or SAPS, maintains for vehicles linked to criminal activity. He states that it is important to take note of these vehicles in the comments that SAPS left as a warning for security guards who are responsible for responding to the alert and apprehending those responsible. They are dangerous and involved in many home invasions and murders. High-caliber weapons are best and they will not hesitate to fire. Call your security company and SAPS IMMEDIATELY.”
Vumacam uses a subscription-based model: entities registered with the private security industry regulator as well as SAPS and metropolitan police departments can rent access to whichever cluster of camera feeds they want within the Proof 360 platform. In 2019, the company charged 730 South African rand (roughly $50) a month per camera. It declined to disclose its most recent pricing.
The bulk of Vumacam subscribers are private security companies such as AI Surveillance. These companies provide everything from armed guards and monitoring for a wide variety of clients including schools, businesses, residential neighborhoods, and other institutions. This was always the plan: Vumacam CEO Ricky Croock founded AI Surveillance in partnership with Nichols, shortly after founding Vumacam. He then resigned to avoid conflict with other Vumacam clients. Today, a Vumacam subscription is a standard for security companies operating in and around Johannesburg’s most affluent areas and commercial areas. Ryan Roseveare, a Ryan Roseveare resident in Craighall Park, was one of the first suburbs to adopt Vumacam. These private security companies have a dominant role in policing even though they do not have the same legal power. Whereas South Africa has just over 1,100 police stations with just over 180,000 staff members, there are 11,372 registered security companies and 564,540 actively employed security guards, more than the police and the military combined. This is a remnant from apartheid. In the late 1970s, the ruling National Party deployed police to protect its political interests, controlling widespread unrest in opposition to the government. These duties were more important than actual police work, which left an opportunity for private players.
Later, an already underresourced police force downsized further as a condition of post-apartheid reform. Along with the country’s high crime rates, the private security industry exploded. In the last fiscal year, South Africa had more than four times the number of homicides per head than the US.
Government policy encouraged the police and communities to work with these private agencies. The result has been an evolving private security sector that is more martial. These paramilitary units can be seen all over Johannesburg: uniformed men riding in tactical vehicles and carrying large guns. They are much more common than the police. They serve the private sector, not the public good. Just as the government failed in providing boots on the ground to meet the surveillance needs of private citizens, the government also failed to meet the demands of businesses and private citizens. Johannesburg first installed cameras in 2009, and today they number 574, according to city officials. But the city’s been plagued by media reports of nonfunctioning cameras. Even the 25 installed on Vilakazi Street in 2017, part of a smart-city initiative, are now gone, Nkosi says.
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Vumacam stepped into this gap in the market: its CEO, Croock, is a product of Johannesburg’s security industry, having previously operated a private patrol and monitoring service in the more affluent suburbs. Croock saw the potential to add internet-connected cameras to the security companies’ offerings and to use AI analytics.
Vumacam partnered up with Hikvision, a Chinese company, and Axis Communications, a Swedish company, to provide the hardware, while Milestone, a popular Danish-based video surveillance management software, provided the software. It then teamed up with private agencies to patrol wealthy residential areas. They erected high-definition cameras on poles that were placed on top of Johannesburg’s fiber network.
On its end of the bargain, Vumacam promised regular maintenance, high uptime, and storage of the footage for up to 30 days, during which officers and legal representatives could request a more permanent copy for use as evidence in crime investigations. By March 2021, 50 security companies were subscribed to its service. Vumacam declined information about the number of customers it has today.
More recently, the company has sought adoption in malls, office buildings, and even people’s homes. It doesn’t place its own cameras within these spaces, but customers can connect their existing CCTV feeds to Proof 360 for comprehensive security monitoring of public and private spaces.
Vumacam has now reached a large market penetration and is pushing for a new level in centralization and coordination to combat criminal activity. It claims its solution can track criminals from the moment they are convicted to the point they escape.
Proof 360 users can add wanted vehicles–those reported stolen or suspected of being used to commit a crime–to their own private database on the platform or a shared database that allows all users to work together to track cars across jurisdictions; in car-dependent Johannesburg, this can be as targeted as facial recognition. Croock states that “in essence, we could have an accident on one of our cameras and all the security companies are now trying to intercept the same vehicle in a coordinated manner.”
Vumacam claims that this method is faster than waiting for a police probe. Before adding a plate number, users don’t need to file a crime report. Instead, they will receive a case number from police. Kelly de Ricquebourg is Vumacam’s product manager software. “I’m going to be able to put this license plate in and catch them in the next 10 minutes. It’s not going to take me 10 minutes to get a case number from SAPS. It takes me up to 48 hours.”
After 48 hours, if a license plate in the shared database still doesn’t have a case number, it’s automatically deleted, she adds. There is no transparency or mechanism to ensure that this cleaning is done properly. The same process is not applied to plates stored in the private databases of each user. This means that any plate number could be added with no vetting. This means that cars could be monitored and pulled over if they are not legal or legitimate.
Such apprehensions may be made by security companies, the police or in joint operations between them. Police sometimes ask private security companies to use Vumacam’s network in order to avoid the bureaucracy of their system. Nichols, of AI Surveillance, says that they had SAPS in the control room last week to check it out and see what we were doing. “Last year, mid-July, a police guy came for a full day so he could have access to the cameras.”
Vumacam says its approach aided in the apprehension of 97 vehicles and the arrest of 85 individuals in the Sandton Central Improvement District, a commercial area of Johannesburg, during the first seven months after its cameras were installed. Pearman claims it is not privy to information about whether arrests led to convictions.
Vumacam is now building out more applications on Proof 360, including a system to detect license plate cloning–when two cars show up in different locations with identical plate numbers. It also allows third-party developers to add applications to the platform and distribute them to its users.
In parallel, it is expanding its physical infrastructure to the rest the country. Croock states that the company will change to a new model later this year. Customers will pay a flat fee for access to the entire network of cameras, instead of a select few. Agencies will still have the ability to filter alerts within their jurisdiction, but will also be able view any feed in the country. The new approach will allow Vumacam, regardless of whether there are paying customers near it, to place poles or cameras. “If you go to your cell telephone provider, you don’t ask him, ‘I want a tower here and a tower elsewhere,’” he replies.
“We need to make sure we get that coverage,” de Ricquebourg adds, “so that there’s no way for the vehicles to miss those cameras or hide from the system.”
The crime is real. On the day we walked around Rosebank with Nkosi, holding out our smartphones as recording devices, two passersby called out warnings within minutes of one another. One said, “Ma’am, you need to be careful around here.” “That’s a very nice phone. The other said, “They’re going take it, and they’re going too cry too much.” It’s not just petty crime. Heidi Swart, the South African reporter for this piece, and Nkosi had their phones stolen days before our meeting. The last three months of 2021 saw 165,000 violent physical crimes like murder, rape, common assault, and robbery reported to police nationwide. Roseveare, who was responsible for the initial installation of Vumacam’s cameras, said that Craighall Park and Craighall were keen to adopt Vumacam. Roseveare says that the community felt safer when the cameras were first installed. He believes that they deterred criminality, though it would be difficult to prove this with statistics. He says that crime in South Africa is always increasing like inflation. So the impact would be a slower increase or decrease in its severity.
There are now 159 cameras across both communities, including 70 with license plate recognition, at all the exit and entry points and major intersections.
But absent from the conversation is why the crime exists in the first place. Researchers of industrial societies have repeatedly demonstrated that inequality drives crime. Not only is South Africa the world’s most unequal country, but the gap is deeply racialized, a part of apartheid’s legacy. The latest government reports show that in 2015 half of the country lived in poverty; 93% of those people were Black. It’s predominantly white people that can afford surveillance and predominantly Black people who are left without the right to be monitored.
To make matters worse, AI tools such as facial recognition and anomaly detection aren’t always reliable and the consequences can be unevenly distributed. When footage is captured outdoors and under uncontrolled conditions, the likelihood of facial recognition software making a false identification is significantly higher. This risk is even greater for Black people.
In many ways, the cameras have re-created the digital equivalent of passbooks, or internal passports, an apartheid-era system that the government used to limit Black people’s physical movements in white enclaves, says Michael Kwet, a visiting fellow at Yale Law School who studies the South African surveillance industry. Only Black people had to have the passbooks. White people could move freely. Pearman says such claims “purposefully attempt to mislead the public to create fear instead of hope where technology is successful in fighting crime.”
Meanwhile, the privatization of public safety has crowded out discussion of how the same money could be spent if not on mass surveillance: improved access to water, sanitation, electricity, health care, education, and youth employment to alleviate the poverty fueling the crime. Instead, companies see it as a business opportunity.
They’re essentially monetizing the public spaces and public life,” Nkosi states.
“Vumacam’s technology is honed for the purpose of preventing crime and as such does not have mass surveillance capability nor intention,” says Pearman. “The concerns of so-called ‘activists’ quoted is propaganda that we deem intentionally malicious, defamatory and without any basis in truth.”
And though crime temporarily decreased during the pandemic, it has once again exploded. Many companies that we spoke to believe this justifies increased investment in surveillance technologies. Pearman states that surveillance infrastructure focused on crime is crucial to preventing, preventing, understanding, and curbing the current impedes investment and economic growth which are so essential to job provision and poverty alleviation.
We have seen that surveillance technologies that were properly implemented and had analytics as part the solutions proactive rather then reactive, had a huge impact on criminal activities,” says Jan Erasmus, NEC XON’s business lead for surveillance, analytics and surveillance. Erasmus states that security companies are working to improve their facial recognition capabilities in order to identify suspect criminals. The technology uses surveillance footage to match faces of wanted individuals with the database. One security provider, Bidvest Protea Coin, is collaborating with NEC XON to implement a system using 48,000 mugshots of suspects wanted for anything from rhino and abalone poaching to ATM bombings and theft of base station batteries. Both companies plan to share the system with other security firms as well as banks and government actors.
However, there have been instances where facial recognition was used to identify individuals without criminal records. In 2016, when economically disadvantaged Black students at universities across the country protested against high tuition fees, NEC XON collected protesters’ faces from photos and videos that were circulating on WhatsApp and social media; then it compared them against university databases of student ID photos. Erasmus says the aim was not to stop the protesters but to determine whether they were students (most were not, he says) and prevent damage to university property, which is estimated to have totaled 786 million rand ($52 million) nationally.
But five years later, students felt that they were being criminalized when protests erupted again. Police arrived with riot gear, tear gas, and rubber bullets, and they openly filmed students at close range for so-called “evidence” collection, says Ntyatyambo Volsaka, a 19-year-old law student and activist at the University of the Witwatersrand.
“We’re trying to make sure that everyone is getting an education,” he says, “but the police treat us like animals.” Erasmus says NEC XON did not assist police with surveillance during the 2021 protests.
These same companies are building surveillance systems around the world. South Africa is a market that is growing rapidly and also offers the opportunity to perfect their technologies. When AI is “developed in Europe and America and all of these places,” says Kyle Dicks, a Johannesburg-based sales engineer for Axis Communications, “often South Africa is the place to put them to the test.”
Vumacam’s quietly sprawling camera network has met with little resistance since it launched in February 2019.
But last year, a surprising champion for privacy rights was called out by the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA), which is charged with making sure that structures erected on public walkways don’t block traffic or interfere with power cables or water mains. Vumacam’s cameras were mounted on poles on sidewalks and required JRA approval.
It was all going well until the JRA refused to grant Vumacam any further permissions. The JRA argued that the company would use the cameras “spy” on public. The agency stated that it would not proceed until the city had released a framework for surveillance cameras. Vumacam took Vumacam to court.
Ultimately, the JRA lost the case, but not the privacy debate. The judge ruled that it was the JRA’s responsibility to protect road infrastructure integrity, not human rights. The court did not issue a judgment on the privacy infringement claim, recognizing the complexity of the matter.
Since then, there’s been no further litigation from civil society organizations, and no legislation specifically regulating surveillance cameras in public spaces or accompanying analytics like facial recognition. Nkosi states that the public is preoccupied with immediate problems. “People are concerned about where their next job will be, where their food will come from, and what the future holds for the country.” We haven’t educated our public enough to understand the dangers of surveillance and what it means in a democratic society.”
But the questions raised by the lawsuit have only grown more urgent. The global surveillance industry has always been open to ideas from other countries. Os Keyes, a doctoral student at the University of Washington, said that the US government, which was the first major funding source for modern surveillance technologies such as facial recognition, continues to be the most influential institution in determining their direction through vendor rankings and standards.
Many of the technologies used in South Africa were developed under this influence. Technology and ideology are now moving in the same direction.
AI Surveillance, for example, wants to find clients in the US that will feed their CCTV footage to its control room and monitoring staff in Johannesburg. CEO Nichols believes that the company will be competitive because of the lower wages and its South African experience. He says that the US is more advanced in hardware and recording, with more cameras and more footage. “South Africa is more advanced in the analysis and dispatch–out necessity
Vumacam also began to adapt its model for other markets. It has now moved to Nigeria where it is installing cameras on existing infrastructure such as cell towers, rather than building its own poles. In other places that have existing CCTV camera networks, such as the US and UK, it could focus on selling its Proof 360 platform. Croock states, “We think that we’re on to something.” Croock says, “We see huge global ambitions There are signs that the surveillance industry is also moving towards a platform-based approach.” Milestone, the video management tool that Proof 360 is built on, similarly allows anyone to build AI applications like facial and license plate recognition for its software. Axis Communications, with offices in the USA and South Africa, recently launched its own platform.
This year NEC, NEC XON’s parent company, plans to launch NEC Nexus, a new product that allows government agencies combine their watchlists in a manner that echoes Vumacam’s centralization and management of license plate databases. Nexus is currently being tested in the UK, where NEC currently has the largest pilot for live facial recognition. It will soon be available worldwide, Erasmus states, though there are no plans to roll it out in South Africa.
Nkosi fears what could happen next. He’s watched governments around the world embrace these advancements under the pretense of public safety before inevitably expanding it for mass surveillance of activists and civilians, with targets including the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and the Uyghur minority in China.
“Ultimately you’re going to have the state colluding with these private companies, because the state has no capacity to run such a massive complicated network of CCTV cameras,” he says. “That is the bigger danger for me.”
Indeed, South Africa is in the process of building out a national biometric identification database called ABIS that would include the face of every resident and foreign visitor. ABIS, which is a combination of Vumacam’s national surveillance network camera upgrades and expanded use facial recognition, could one day allow the government to track every person in the country.
We don’t downplay the real danger of journalists, activists, and businesspeople being tracked illegally (some with fatal consequences),” Pearman states. “However, people can’t be’surveilled” using our technology or systems that aren’t built to spy on individuals,” Erasmus states.
As we continue walking through Rosebank, Nkosi begins to count the cameras. Seven cameras on one pole. Three across the street. Six on the other.
” “The state may not yet be awake to it, but we’re headed there,” he said back in his home. “The spaces [for activism and protest], are going to shrink. Private companies are going to make a killing.”
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.