Millions of ringgit being wasted with lack of smart CCTV policy

KUALA LUMPUR, 13 Sept 2019:

Is the surveillance camera just a dumb electronic monitoring device or is it an integral part of a really smart multimedia system?

Lacking clear understanding on how rapidly evolving technology for such camera surveillance (or CCTV) systems actually work has led to billions being wasted around the world – and the same mistakes are still being made here in Malaysia.

The biggest error lies in how various authorities fall for the dazzle CCTV system suppliers dangle, while disguising the fact all these systems follow the same underlying digital technology standards set since 2008.

Authorities are then lured into investing in costly closed surveillance systems incompatible with each other – resulting in duplicated resources between police, local authorities, utilities and more with separate CCTV cameras within same locations.

This silo mindset has already been proven to be an unnecessary hurdle for authorities responding to crisis situations – graphic examples abound from the 9/11 attack in New York to the mysterious flight path of missing Flight MH370.

Other jurisdictions have realised the need for closer cooperation between various authorities and the private sector to address these hurdles – setting up centralised policies and sharing resources for greater public good.

From Seoul to Singapore, major urban centres have teams focused on anti-terrorism surveillance which can pick up bags left unattended within minutes. And realising wider potentials, such surveillance now also help in traffic management and even track missing people.

Some urban centres in Malaysia – George Town and Kuala Lumpur in particular – have similarly invested millions of ringgit in such smart surveillance systems. But how effective have they proven to be?

Confusion over CCTV tech

A recent check among authorities in Malaysia found there’s little or no understanding whatsoever of the technology underlying CCTV systems and solutions. There’s often disbelief at learning CCTV technology is NOT proprietary, and hence very expensive.

Many are shocked to find there’s an open standard since 2008 called onvif, which prescribes:

  • Interoperability – products from various manufacturers can be used in the same systems and “speak the same language”.
  • Flexibility – end-users and integrators are not locked within proprietary solutions based on technology choices of individual manufacturers.
  • Future-proof – standards ensure that there are interoperable products on the market, no matter what happens to individual companies.
  • Quality – when a product conforms to a standard, the market knows what to expect from that product.

The biggest buzz in surveillance systems today is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to track and detect potential threats and targets – it’s still developing technology which uses processes very similar to ‘beautifying’ features offered in many smartphone camera apps.

Such AI software have become so commonplace that even a junior programmer can easily create cheap solutions for CCTV surveillance systems. The logic is simple – just define hundreds or thousands of virtual detection points, then compare against an image database.

It’s at this point where lots of suppliers dress up their offerings to wow ignorant authority officials, leading the latter to commit huge amounts of money into much-inflated hype.

When all razzmatazz get stripped away, the AI software is revealed to be just a fancy name for the long-established digital video standard called motion JPEG (MJPEG) – a quick sequence of images at 24 to 60 frames per second.

So with cameras which livestream only pure video – like the h.264 format – these have to be reconverted into MJPEG. This means newer premium-priced cameras are actually overkill when there are cheaper devices.

With most of the work now possible to be done by computer software, dedicated speed cameras have also become redundant. So why are millions still being spent on Automated Enforcement System (AES) camera installations when MJPEG analysis can do the same?

In fact, most surveillance traffic cameras now installed along Malaysian highways and roads can easily be repurposed to become speed cameras with simple computer software algorithms. This will breathe new life into existing fixtures, as even analogue cameras can be made onvif-compatible with cheap digital encoders.

Who’s in charge?

Because those in authority who sign purchase orders for CCTV systems aren’t familiar enough with actual technology possibilities when compared to cost-benefits, suppliers are laughing with glee.

Among those who sign off on CCTV contracts include the Finance Ministry, police force under Home Affairs Ministry, Transport Ministry, Works Ministry plus Housing and Local Government Ministry and state governments governing local councils.

Glaringly absent is the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), whose self-stated responsibilities include “development and enforcement of technical codes and standards” plus to “consider and recommend reforms to the communications and multimedia law”.

This continued wastage of funds on proprietary CCTV systems, invested on silo mindset lines of those who sign purchase orders, can stop only once a national policy is clearly drawn up based on actual technology specifications. Will and when MCMC address this need?

Another focus needed is on maintenance and upgrading of CCTV systems already paid for – many such contracts with authorities now specify fixes need to be completed only within 30 – or sometimes 60 – days!

Worse, because much of the equipment is way past warranty dates – usually set at a year – repairs can be more costly than simply replacing faulty parts. And yet, purchase orders are often based on equipment being expected to last 10 years of more – thus more costly.

Apart from addressing these contractual performance anomalies, the authorities are also overlooking a potent tool to expand access to CCTV systems now in private ownership.

With proper regulation, it’s possible to plug in these private CCTV cameras into systems run by the authorities – for example by inserting such clauses into petrol stations’ licensing requirements or permits for signages outside shops, for example.

Again, MCMC seems to be in the best position to drive such change as its responsibilities include to “consider and recommend reforms to the communications and multimedia law”. If MCMC doesn’t, which government authority will?

Malaysia can be a global CCTV champion

These issues also give rise to a fantastic opportunity for Malaysia to set global standards for CCTV cameras and system, as these same problems abound in other countries – including within urban centres which already have smart surveillance in place.

Taking advantage of the open onvif standard and harnessing MJPEG analysis for AI surveillance tools, Malaysian regulators and entrepreneurs can drive a new all-encompassing ecosystem for CCTV – like what Google’s Android OS has become for smartphone operations.

Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo already said Malaysia has the potential to be the centre for the Southeast Asia region, with focus on developing talents to increase knowledge about AI. Why not the world too?

Taking advantage of Malaysia’s leadership at the Global IPv6 Forum based in Luxembourg, it’s time to recognise the huge multimedia potential of surveillance cameras and systems – especially within the Internet of Things arena.