Uganda: CCTV Cameras - Are They the Sure Solution to Kampala Insecurity?

Uganda Police CCTV monitor room at Naguru.
26 October 2018

It's not long ago when the President commissioned CCTV cameras to watch over and carry on video surveillance duties on the streets of Kampala. On the occasion, the President warned that with the installation of CCTV cameras, assassins and other criminals are in great trouble.

As a privacy and cyber security scholar, I would like to interrogate the President's sharp pointed and direct warning using professional lenses. From the onset, I must state that his warning mirrors a perspective of the real world which is common to the majority of his generation. His warning falls short of a virtual world perspective, which is what CCTV technology is all about.

The installation of the cameras comes off as a knee-jerk reaction to the high crime rate and specifically assassinations of high profile Ugandans. The assassinations did not only target high ranking security officers, but also clerics and political leaders in Kampala and the surrounding districts. This is not to say the civilian population has been spared.

Whereas the adoption of advanced technology as a solution to the insecurity in the country is a commendable one, the government needs to beware of a more security threat that is posed by the installation of CCTV cameras. This call is buttressed by vivid cyber-attacks that have been experienced by the more technologically advanced nations.

There are notorious examples that exhibit the short comings in the CCTV surveillance schemes that have exposed the vulnerability of the CCTV cameras as a mode of ensuring a secure and safe environment without crime.

Days before US President Donald Trump's inauguration, hackers infected storage devices on Washington, D.C. police video surveillance cameras with ransomware. This left 123 cameras in public spaces inoperable.

In Japan, hackers disabled more than 60 Canon security cameras at businesses and waterways in cities across the country and the country was left on a standstill for a while. Hackers have often accessed traffic controlling cameras and caused havoc in cities around the world.

It is generally agreed that video surveillance in form of Internet Protocol (IP) cameras have long served as the workhorse of physical security, exposing and even deterring criminal activity. IP cameras offer better resolution and a wider field of vision than traditional analog models, and they feature analytic and remote monitoring capabilities.

However, the ever changing technology has allowed hackers to turn the tables on these dependable devices and making surveillance cameras another piece of equipment that needs protection over and above the threat they intend to avert.

The weaknesses in the Uganda CCTV cameras security approach are two-fold. These are a lack of the right cyber infrastructure coupled with the imbedded weaknesses in the technology itself.

The President should consider that this security solution has to be supported by advanced ICT infrastructure and robust cyber security which the government has neglected.

The infrastructural challenges of internet connectivity and power shading experienced by developing countries like Uganda are areas that will blur the results expected of this new security tool.

CCTV cameras need more secure packet layers in order to yield the desired results a situation which I do observe is lacking in our CCTV security system. Uninterrupted power supply, which is a rare commodity in Uganda, is another missing link that is likely to affect this new revered security linchpin.

Without being a pessimist, unless the government addresses the infrastructural challenges by providing dedicated infrastructure for the CCTV cameras in form of uninterrupted power supply and high speed internet, the installation of CCTV cameras will not be an assurance of the safest, secure and on the go solution for averting crime in Kampala.

From a technological research point, it has been proved that as countries opt for advanced IP cameras, they expose themselves to hackers who, often, can easily gain access to system networks, changing or stealing data and rendering cameras useless.

From a professional stand point, the internet protocols used in our CCTVs are an easy go for potential attacks. Each internet protocol camera is a unique, connected device with its own passwords and security settings.

Poorly configured devices with design flaws or faulty firmware, combined with a "set it and forget it" mindset, can give hackers easy access to manipulate video footage. This would potentially compromise other critical systems housed on the same network which is the case with Uganda.

The vigilance that the powers that be have exhibited in installing the CCTV cameras should be replicated in ensuring advanced cyber infrastructure and a deliberate approach to avert cyber-attacks. That way, government will maximise the desired goal of a safe city.

Mr Muhawe is a lawyer/advocate & a privacy and cybersecurity PhD candidate at the University of Illinos- USA.

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