Cowboys running roughshod – this is how South Africa’s most ambitious public spy camera operator is dubbed as it erects surveillance cameras that are said to siphon dwindling electricity from the public grid. Vanishing electricity is a sensitive political and economic issue in South Africa, where blackouts have increased.
Vumacam is South Africa’s most aggressive public spy camera corporation. Its 1426 cameras, mounted on 1727 grey domes, cover a whopping 48 suburbs of the city of Johannesburg, says Ricky Croock, the company’s chief executive officer. In Johannesburg’s fortified suburbs, where wealthy dwellers are terrified of some of the world’s most vicious home burglaries and murders, Vumacam is poised to profit from fear. In 2019, local authorities and activists started to accuse Vumacam of signing unlawful deals with Johannesburg city homeowners to divert electricity from properties, thus powering up its street spy cameras.
Ms. Amelia Bester, a vigilant Johannesburg city executive who tracks illegal businesses schemes, says worried residents began to raise alerts about spy cameras poles and secretive electricity connections. “In August 2019, we demanded that Vumacam stop poaching electricity to run its spy cameras and gave them a short ultimatum to remove all the connections it had made with homeowners.”
Vumacam argues that it was initially allowed by City Power, the energy utility company that provides electricity in Johannesburg, to follow the same principle followed by boom gates in suburbs where power is drawn from residents. “There was a subsequent statement made regarding legality (of tethering spy cameras to household electricity); however, this was resolved,” says Croock, without disclosing when the dispute was resolved.
Vumacam currently draws power in three ways, according to Croock: directly from the municipality grid; from private homes “with agreements,” or from solar power.
“With the situation now resolved, we are ensuring that more cameras are powered directly from the municipal grid as this provides a more reliable supply,” he explained.
Tethering spy cameras to home power grids could spark deadly sub-station tripping issues, transformer failures, home fires, and circuit overloads, says Gavin Borrageiro, anti-surveillance tech activist and founder of the LCII Foundation in Johannesburg, who says he is tracking the hidden database control room where captured feeds from Vumacam spy cameras are processed.
“In the past, Johannesburg city’s public electricity agency had to do disconnections of some of these (cameras) due to increased pressure on the power grid as well as incorrectly installed connections which put electrical boxes at risk,” reveals Leah Knott, a Johannesburg city councilor.
Though data is scarce and severely under-collected, the South Africa Medical Journal states that death by electrocution killed 39 people over five years (January 2008 to December 2012) in nearby Cape Town city, the country’s second-largest metropolis.
Spying on cars and joggers
Vumacam, owned by Vumatel, one of South Africa’s biggest fibre internet providers, is Johannesburg’s most prominent public spy camera operator.
Mr. Murray Hunter, a South African author who writes about surveillance and even wrote a children’s book about baby-tracking robots, calls Vumacam a “surveillance-for-hire network.”
“Vumacam AI and Facial Recognition training cameras track people and objects over 500 square kilometers of the city and sells the live feed to security companies; that’s their modus operandi,” says Gavin Borrageiro, a leading South Africa tech rights activist who is in and out of court fighting what he calls “illegal public surveillance cameras.”
The Johannesburg Roads Agency claimed that the Vumacam was spying on unsuspecting citizens, but lost the case in court.
Vumacam boasts that, unlike its rivals, its spy cameras are connected to what it calls a “Tier-3 datacentre,” and its feed is streamlined in real-time and stored for upwards of 14 days. “Our cameras have Licence Plate Recognition (LPR) functionality. Every vehicle passing an LPR camera is checked against multiple databases of verified Vehicles of Interest (VOI), including listed stolen vehicles, forged plates, and perpetrators on the run,” says Croock.
Vumacam claims its algorithms put analytics on top of the harvested camera feed. Its algorithms can learn what is new behavior and alerts armed guards of something suspicious. Trained algorithms and its so-called “iSentry” autonomous video analysis system can learn what “unusual behavior” is for that time of the day.
Spy cameras battle for South Africa’s energy
Public surveillance spy companies are battling to secure electrical energy when South Africa’s electricity is a vanishing commodity. Eskom, South Africa’s power generator and formerly one of the world’s largest electricity generation companies, is on the verge of bankruptcy and clueless on how to wiggle out of a US$27 billion debt. Rolling blackouts are hitting the country, thus weakening hospitals, factories, and home businesses. For spy camera corporations like Vumacam, these outages are giving them a big headache since they must remain switched on, especially in moments of darkness.
Vumacam says it is not aware of any accusations of garnishing the precious few reserves of public electricity in South Africa. Its cameras are sustainable, argues Croock. “The amount of power used by our cameras is negligible (no more than a household device), and Vumacam pays for the supply, whether via the grid or from residents. Some of our cameras operate from solar power and have no reliance on municipal electricity,” says Croock. In fact, Vumacam says it is a force for good for Johannesburg because its spy cameras are pivotal in preventing cable theft and catching cable theft in progress where their cameras operate.
“This is not a service that the City of Johannesburg is charged for, however, it is one that prevents the cost and disruption of theft,” adds Croock.
Spy cameras are a divisive issue
Some Johannesburg residents are unsettled, believing that Vumacam cameras are recording private yards and garnishing dwindling reserves of electricity. However, other residents are in outright support of Vumacam’s cameras. “Does the city own the electricity in my home?” asks Lucas Botha, a homeowner, and teacher who lives in a Johannesburg suburb where Vumacam cameras are rapidly going up.
“Can they dictate that I can’t sell my electricity to surveillance spy cameras? I want to be safe. I don’t want to be raped or burgled.”
Nyasha Bhobo is a freelance tech writer in South Africa. Her work has appeared in Rest of World, Fodor’s Travel, Newsweek, and iAfrikan.