Under the stated aims of improving citizen safety, municipality leaders are putting up public surveillance cameras throughout Costa Rica’s streets and parks.
Recently, Palmares became the seventh community in Alajuela to install surveillance cameras in its town center. Now Palmares’ mayor, Bernal Vargas, says the town is so satisfied with their ability to aid police forces that the current system of 10 cameras could nearly triple in coming months.
He said that although public security cameras on every street corner may sound like the backdrop for a totalitarian state, the town’s population has given near universal approval of them because police can now respond to any potential robberies or assaults quicker than ever.
“Maybe it’s a policy that others may see as repressive,” he said. “But our plan for public security in Palmares is more about prevention of crime and that police can arrive on the scene immediately.”
San José is also filled with the 24-hour eyes of public security cameras. Monica Coto Murillo, who is in charge of electronic security at the municipality, said seven of the 11 districts are equipped with surveillance systems. She said when the decision to install cameras first came about there were many who voiced their concerns about their rights of privacy being violated but added that those protests have since been calmed by the protocol and rules that surround the issue.
Regulation No. 34104-G-MSP, published in 2007 when an initial 3,000 cameras were installed, states that authorities cannot use information retrieved from the cameras for anything but pertinent police investigations. It further says that police working the cameras are highly trained and follow a strict guideline of confidentiality so that information is not handed over to third parties.
Ms. Coto said that the cameras are strategically placed in areas that both Fuerza Pública and municipality police have targeted as seeing higher daily traffic or being more at risk for crimes.
“We are able to prevent any suspected crimes by immediately catching those who leave suspicious evidence for those watching the monitors,” she said. “The cameras also allow us to evaluate our management of security as a whole.”
Though far from a surveillance state, Costa Rica is following a trend that activists and privacy advocates around the globe are protesting. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote earlier this year that the more police cameras there are, the more likely they are to abuse this power of information they have over the citizen.
“As with any technology, one can imagine scenarios where such systems save the day,” he wrote. “But it is even easier to imagine scenarios where such a technology is abused and in fact such scenarios don’t require any imagination whatsoever as experience strongly suggests abuses are inevitable.”
Studies done by the civil liberties union have also shown that crime levels do not drop as a direct result of having cameras and that preventing attacks or acts of terrorism are still incredibly hard even with the aid of overhead eyes.
In Palmares, Fuerza Pública has total control of the surveillance operations and keeps track of the information 24 hours a day from the monitoring station. The high-tech system of cameras have the ability to capture a car’s license plate from hundreds of meters away, pivot at a 360-degree range, and they’re bulletproof.
Though fancy, another concern of public monitoring systems is their high costs. The whole system was priced around $75,000 as the cameras alone cost around $6,000 each. Palmares is capable of holding up to 17 more cameras, which Vargas said would be a welcome investment.
“When people realize there are surveillance cameras around, they take less risks,” he said.
Another Alajuela canton, San Ramón, has had cameras since 2011. According to a report written by Oscar Mario Alvarado Vásquez, the head of information technology for San Ramón, installation sprang up after people became worried about clearly illicit acts that were happening at a town park at all hours of the day. Alvarado said the Fuerza Pública officers weren’t able to keep an eye on all of San Ramón without the technology’s aid.
Now police have access to 16 cameras mounted throughout the city of more than 10,000 people. The initial investment cost around $45,000 but the municipality also took out a $150,000 loan from Banco Nacional to pay for the system, according to Alvarado.
“Public surveillance is just another tool to improve the way of life for our people,” Alvarado said. “There’s a lot of work that lies ahead, but evidence of our local government’s promise to its people can already be seen.”