What do Internet-linked surveillance cameras mean for privacy?

Updated 2017-12-20 12:40:29 Xinhua

Pedestrians walking on the street; customers eating at restaurants; women working out at the gym. If you want to watch these scenes live, they are freely available on certain websites.

Live online broadcasts of public surveillance cameras are popular in China, easily attracting thousands of views and comments from web users.

But recent media coverage has put this practice under the spotlight and drawn widespread public criticism for invasion of privacy.

"I think it's horrible," said a man surnamed Wu, who lives in Wuhan, capital of China's central Hubei Province. "If my image and circle of life can be seen online, then it's so easy to know my whereabouts."

Business insiders say the broadcasts satisfy public desire to watch people's private lives, offering a different experience to regular Internet streams.

"Online platforms can also cash in on the flow of views from other commercial products," said a person familiar with the business model, who asked to remain anonymous.

Wang Sixin, a researcher at the Communication University of China, said surveillance camera manufacturers could use live broadcast platforms to attract customers as they had a higher number of views.

In response, some surveillance camera manufacturers say they have asked users to put notices in places covered by live broadcasts. Some platforms claim they have established strict supervision to check the content of live broadcasts.

Legal experts are divided on whether businesses are infringing upon privacy after notices have been put up.

According to China's Civil Law, if a citizen's image is used to make profit, businesses must seek consent of the people involved. Consent is also compulsory if the broadcasts risk damaging a person's image, reputation or privacy.

"Those whose privacy is invaded can lodge complaints to authorities or file lawsuits for compensation," said Wu Ge, a lawyer in Beijing.

There were 751 million Internet users in China as of June 2017, and it is estimated that the number of users for online live broadcasting will reach 400 million by the end of the year.

Experts believe both online platforms and businesses should raise their awareness of personal information protection.

Wu said that authorities should both enhance supervision of online platforms and impose severe punishments to those found guilty.

According to China's Network Security Law, Internet operators and providers of online services found invading citizens' legally protected personal information could receive warning, have their illegal gains confiscated, or be fined an amount less than ten times the profit.

Those involved in severe cases can also face suspension or closure of business.

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