Vumacam wins big court battle over “spy camera” accusations

Vumacam has won a court battle against the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA), which accused it of spying on innocent people and selling the footage to third parties.

In a judgement handed down by the Gauteng High Court on 20 August, the court ruled against the JRA, which had refused to grant wayleaves to Vumacam for the expansion of its security camera network in the City of Johannesburg.

Vumacam is a Vumatel-owned security camera company which leverages the fibre network’s infrastructure to deploy a network of pole-mounted street cameras across the city.

These cameras are deployed with the aim of combatting crime in the city, and the company previously told MyBroadband that they have proven very effective in this endeavour.

The JRA had suspended the issuance of wayleaves to Vumacam earlier this year, however, arguing that Vumacam’s goal in installing the cameras was to surveil the movements of innocent people and sell the footage to third parties.

It referred to the surveillance as “spy footage” which is tradeable in the hands of Vumacam, and alleged that the prevention and detection of crime is not the primary reason for the installation of the security cameras across the city.

“The essence of the JRA’s cases is that Vumacam is spying on an individual’s movements and thereby infringing their rights to privacy,” the judgement stated.

Fight over wayleave applications

Vumacam has historically encountered little difficulty in obtaining wayleaves from the JRA for the erection of its pole and camera infrastructure.

These wayleaves were always issued within 48 hours following application, but in April 2019 the JRA began increasing or changing the requirements on an ad-hoc basis.

“This caused some tension between Vumacam and JRA, which was resolved in September 2019. Vumacam was able to secure 64 wayleaves for CCTV purposes between October 2019 and March 2020,” the judgement said.

The JRA’s wayleave department temporarily closed from 20 March 2020 due to the COVID-19 lockdown, and upon reopening on 9 June, it announced that it would not accept wayleave applications for aerial and CCTV installations.

These applications were “suspended until further notice”, an act which prevented Vumacam from further rolling out its CCTV network.

The Gauteng High Court has now ruled that the JRA’s decision to suspend these wayleave applications was unlawful, ordering the agency to resume processing these wayleave applications.

The JRA has also been directed to issue Vumacam with a decision on the outstanding wayleave applications by 27 August.

Lack of legislation

Central to the JRA’s argument for the non-issuance of wayleaves due to Vumacam’s infrastructure infringing on the privacy of citizens was the claim that it is entitled to refuse to process Vumacam’s applications until a law is put in place to deal with this issue.

The court, however, disagreed that the JRA had the power to decide that the law is deficient.

“Assuming in its favour that the law is deficient, [the JRA] still does not have the power to suspend its duties pending promulgation of regulations or the enactment of a statute to deal with issues concerning the collection or usage of data obtained from CCTV cameras by private bodies such as Vumacam,” the judgement said.

“By refusing to accept wayleave applications from Vumacam, it is either abdicating its duties or suspending them.”

The court noted that the argument of Vumacam’s data collection and processing being unlawful was not relevant to the case brought by the JRA, which was concerned with the purview of the agency.

“The collection of personal information via CCTV cameras at a road reserve (video surveillance) and the processing thereof, which reveals who travelled down which road – whether by vehicle or foot – and when they travelled there may infringe the privacy and/or other rights of that individual, and may for that reason be unlawful,” the court said.

“However, that issue – the legality or otherwise of the conduct – is not engaged here.”

Outside of questions over the infringement to individuals’ right to privacy, Vumacam has proven effective in combatting crime across the areas where it has deployed its camera infrastructure.

It employs two main camera types for this purpose – Overview and License Plate Recognition (LPR) cameras – which are connected to security control rooms via Vumatel’s fibre network.

The company previously told MyBroadband its LPR cameras generate around 28,000 VOI (Vehicle of Interest) alerts every day, of which 23,500 come from police VOI databases and 4,500 from private security databases.

Vumacam also said it receives requests for approximately 1,000 investigative searches per day.

Vumacam rubbishes spying accusations

Addressing the claims made by the JRA in the court case, Vumacam CEO Ricky Croock said that they do not collect personal data, do not sell personal data to third parties, and do not intend to do so.

“Vumcam anonymises all data and does not have any means to link footage to any individual’s personal data,” Croock said.

“Vumacam provides situational awareness to curb criminal activity and to assist in medical emergencies. It does not spy on law-abiding citizens.”

Croock added that Vumacam’s operations are in line with all current by-laws and the necessary permissions have been granted for all operations.

He said that Vumacam is not currently aware of any intention of the JRA to appeal the judgement.

“We take the protection of data and privacy rights very seriously and have ensured significant measures to exceed not only local by-laws and regulations but also international standards on privacy,” says Croock.

“Our doors are always open to any party or individual who wants to learn more about our operations and we are pleased that with this ruling, we are able to address the equally important constitutional rights of citizens to be kept safe from the unrelenting impact of crime in South Africa.”

MyBroadband asked the JRA for comment on the judgement handed down on 20 August but did not receive comment by the time of publication.

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Vumacam wins big court battle over “spy camera” accusations