Can we depend on few thousands of cameras of Safe City that cost $ 120 million but struggle to minimize the threat level? Indeed, they did not prove helpful in stopping the inhuman and wicked terrorists from killing few of the fine officers of the Lahore Police along with many valuable lives. Equally painful is the fact that the blast took place at a spot which is already considered Red Area from the security point of view and at that moment on February 13th, it was well in sight of top police officials of the city.

The area is always well guarded because Punjab Assembly, 90 Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam and office of the CCPO Lahore are just stone’s throw away.

There were some high definition ANPR cameras installed by the Punjab Safe City Authority (PSCA) to monitor the crowded place at the time of the protest. Although, few were out of order for which an inquiry is underway, however, the working ones could not help in preventing the incident from happening.

According to the latest video released in the Media, which was captured by a private CCTV camera of famous Chaman Ice Cream, the suicide bomber along with his facilitator was uninterruptedly walking towards the crime scene all the way from Hall Road (Regal) Chowk.

As per official statistics, there are some 100 ANPR cameras of Safe City working in the city, and a good number of them have been installed on the Mall Road. These cameras have the tendency to auto recognize faces and facial expression and match them with the database of either NADRA or Criminal Record Database that Punjab Police is building with the help of Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB).

How did these criminals walk past those cameras is a question for the entire city administration.

In our February print edition, we have covered the prospects of Punjab Safe City and how helpful it can be for the citizens of the province. Although, we are still as convinced by the efforts and intentions of Punjab government as we were when we first reported Lahore Police’s love for technology, however, the blast took away the very own people of the force who were also a part of running the whole show. We have been highlighting several tech-based initiatives, may it be inception of OPs rooms or introduction of Dolphin Force and we will keep supporting the citizen welfare projects, yet, it the high time to consider few observations that might help us in accepting the fact that it is not all about putting some tech gadgets on the ground and close the eyes.

Few hours after the blast, we expected a reasonable response from PSCA regarding the information about cameras working upon approaching the authority. However, it was strange to find them unresponsive despite various calls and messages.

Punjab followed Britain but they are backing off

Britain, where nearly 6 million cameras are zooming in on the travelers, is the topmost CCTV camera equipped country in the world. It is estimated that the world’s 20% of cameras are installed only in the UK scanning only 1% of the world’s population. There is one CCTV camera for every ten people.

The camera regime started in early 2000 to counter IRA based terrorist activities, and the network expanded insanely post London bombing in 2005. Even after 20 years, no single report advocates the reduction of crime rate due to expensive cameras. CNN reports that only one crime was solved for every 1000 camera in 2008. A Chicago Tribune report in 2013 suggests that surveillance cameras could assist in resolving 0.05% of the crime.

The burgeoning cost of running and maintaining the surveillance network is putting pressure on the UK government to bring down the number of cameras significantly for relocating the public money for more useful purposes.

Although the coordinated surveillance has helped control street crime to a certain extent and the identification of criminals in a post-event investigation, a general impression is that running and maintaining the tons of data is more cumbersome and cost ineffective to deal with than their meager results.

We neither have huge budgets, nor we can install 6 million cameras for watching every street and corner of Pakistan. The technology can effectively partner with human-based skills and operations to counter all kind of crimes in the country but “calling” Lahore a safe city after deploying cameras would not eliminate the menace of terrorism. There shouldn’t be a need to create a false impression of a secure environment which makes people more vulnerable.

Few things for Safe City Authority

Besides so many other questions, the Lahore blast would certainly put pressure on the authorities to figure out;

Why three cameras were out of order on a crucial point where the explosion actually took place. Without going into any other conspiracy theory, we can apparently blame our general lack of preparation and ill-administration which engulf the whole city.

We had heard about face recognition ANPR cameras in January 2016, and few of them have been installed on the Mall Road in Lahore. Where were those cameras when the suicide bomber walked past them without fear of getting identified and kept walking till he reached the targeted location? We are not yet clear if those Safe City cameras are meant to scan each and every face on the road and match it with the database of criminals and NADRA at runtime or they are just to capture the images of number plates for streamlining traffic in Lahore. Almost a year ago, media was briefed that those cameras would raise the alarm upon detecting a suspicious activity and within seconds an SMS and calls to all the concerned people would be triggered for a timely counter-response.

If only Lahore is to be taken into account, it is considered as the most developed city after Islamabad. Just recently reports surfaced that Safe Authority is in talks with Excise Department to change the number plates of over 4 million vehicles in the city owing to the inability of reading the number plate. If acted upon, the vehicle scanning with the help of ANPR cameras in the city and at exit/entry points might not be possible for few more years.

Lahore Safe City

On February 10th, City 42 reported the stealing of security cameras in Lahore that belonged to all the vigilant Safe City Authority. I am sure; they must have identified the culprit who could comfortably climb and dismantle the gadgets before the dolphin squad could intercept.

The dolphin force was officially brought on the roads in March 2016, but as of today, it is not equipped with the surveillance gadgets that were announced at the time of bringing them on the streets. Most of their constables cry for not being paid on time. It was not an ideal situation to initiate the project without getting the motorbikes registered with vehicle registration authority.

At the launching ceremony, their discipline and skill set was marvelous and couldn’t be called lesser than any other trained civil force in the world. However, the entire police force must get physical, mental and technical training on similar patterns. Just recently, 13-year-old shot fire at the opponents outside Lahore Session Court. As per eyewitnesses, the reluctant police at the gate ran away from the scene instead of countering the young attacker.

PITB is doing a wonderful job in digitizing the government departments, I am sure, for building technical and education skill level, they along with private sector and academia could prove fruitful in revitalizing the entire police force.

Despite boasting of handheld fingerprint scanning devices that are meant to verify the records of suspected people on the roads by matching the thumb impression with NADRA’s repository, Lahore police still ask for producing the CNIC at the pickets.

Community policing is another area that could go hand in hand with conventional force towards a more secure environment. The world saw that police were not able to spot the car filled with explosive at Time Square, New York in 2010. It was citizens of New York who found the vehicle dubious and informed the authorities.

Police 15 emergency system still receive 90% prank calls. The situation is stagnant for the past few years. Community education on security and emergency situation can be enhanced by designing particular constructive programs. Pranksters could be converted into vigilant citizens.

For a while, we can stop pouring funds into advertising campaigns. With the same money, the Punjab government can design various community training programs which will make the people more sensible, responsible and vigilant. Indeed, it will help authorities in every way. Moreover, in 5 years, we can see a drastic decline in crime rate, rather than relying on a few cameras with no guarantee if they are working or not.

We can further bring down the cost of making Safe Cities by manufacturing the equipment in Pakistan. Our government can always make it viable and incentivize the local production for not only keeping the cost low but also create more skilled jobs. Furthermore, these cameras are internet enabled; a local production will also ensure earlier remedy in case of a cyber attack as well as further dilute the possibility of out of country data access. Punjab government is reportedly following the London and Turkey model for surveilling the province; however, it must also consider the growing concern of the British government over relying extensively on Chinese camera vendors on account of capturing a significant share by providing over 1 million CCTV cameras that are installed at key locations.

If only Lahore is to have 8500 cameras in the city, it would not be wrong to estimate over 150K cameras in the entire country if such projects have to be started in other cities and provinces.

We know our CM as being a man of his words. He has completed many public projects remarkably on tight deadlines. Not only roads and bridges, but it also goes to his credit that marriage ceremonies do not go beyond 10 PM today and everyone seems to be happy with one dish solution. Truly revolutionizing the police and educating the masses on the latest patterns would definitely create his legacy worth remembering.