Big Brother is watching: The rise and rise of CCTV in New Zealand

A Herald investigation has uncovered the true extent of security and surveillance cameras in New Zealand.

After dozens of Official Information inquiries, requests for data from private businesses and interviews with security experts, we can reveal there are an estimated 400,000 cameras.

And that number’s growing, with manufacturers and retailers saying demand – especially from private households and businesses – has jumped exponentially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

So, what does this mean for community safety, crime prevention and detection, as well as privacy and civil liberties? Senior journalist Kurt Bayer reports.


When sex worker Renee Duckmanton’s burned body was found dumped on a nondescript farm road south of Christchurch, detectives quickly knew CCTV would be key.

They tracked back. There she was, on a homeowner’s security camera in front of St Luke’s Mews, capturing her walking east on Peterborough St to her usual pick-up spot on Manchester St, the red light strip.

Cameras show a silver Audi cruising past, doubling back, and picking her up.

The car is traced through town, stopping at red lights with her client, butcher Sainey Marong, at the wheel.

They drive on, heading west. Cameras, dozens of them, quietly, pretty much inadvertently, record them. Cameras belonging to private residences, Christchurch City Council, Waka Kotahi, shops, businesses and buses.

The footage would only be seen again because of what Marong was about to do to her.

A detective would later tell a jury that it would take “hundreds, if not thousands” of hours of painstaking legwork to trawl through the footage.

While she phones her minder, he stops at a cash machine on Riccarton Rd to withdraw money. Snap, snap, cameras catch him again.

After killing her, he drives around, unsure what to do.

The next day, he’s seen at 6.46pm driving into the forecourt of the Mobile service station in Rakaia, off State Highway One.

He fills up and goes in to pay, giving the attendant a thumbs-up before making to leave. Then he hesitates goes back, apparently pay some more money before leaving for good.

Duckmanton’s burning body was found by passing motorists around 45 minutes later on nearby Main Rakaia Rd, just off SH1.

There was a blue beanie at the scene. Hours of sifting through older CCTV reveals footage of the killer wearing it a few weeks earlier.

Marong, who would argue all sorts of weird and wonderful things during his extremely unsuccessful defence, could not explain away the CCTV. It was there, mostly in black and white, but at times, in full colour.

His DNA matched evidence collected at the scene.

He was jailed for life.


CCTV is on the rise in New Zealand.

As one security operator put it: “The only people who should worry about that is bad guys doing bad things, and who cares if they’re worried?”

Herald investigations suggest an estimated 400,000 security cameras across the country.

With a population of almost 5.1 million, that’s around one camera for every 12.7 people.

Globally, that’s a drop in the ocean – especially when compared to Chinese supercities or super-surveilled London.

The number’s rising though. And it doesn’t include cellphones (it’s estimated there are more phones than people), dashboard cameras, laptops, webcams, etc.

“It’s pretty clear that cameras are rapidly proliferating,” says NZ Council for Civil Liberties chairman Thomas Beagle.

“Have you ever tried counting up how many cameras are in your house? With the rise of surveillance cameras and smartphones we now clearly have more than one camera per person in New Zealand.”

Neither Police nor the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) have any idea how many cameras there are.

So how did we reach our 400,000 estimate?

New Zealand Security Association chief executive Gary Morrison believes that, based on five years of data from international manufacturers, there are around 200,000 imported surveillance cameras in New Zealand.

That figure includes cameras installed at residential, commercial and government sites, but he accepts it’s “probably higher” given the large number of home systems sold by DIY giantsretailers like Bunnings and Mitre 10.

Bunnings says interest in its range of smart security cameras and accessories, which cost from $59 to $1200, has grown “significantly” in the last 12 months.

“Covid has contributed to an already heightened demand,” a spokeswoman says.

We also fed in data obtained through dozens of requests under the Official Information Act and Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

They reveal around 10,000 cameras across New Zealand’s 78 local, regional and unitary councils.

Auckland Council alone has 2035, while Christchurch City Council has 1253. Most local authorities have several hundred, spread across community centres, civic offices, galleries, libraries, recreation centres and parks.

And that doesn’t take into account transport hubs, buses, trains, and ferries.

Auckland Transport says it has 3654 cameras, while Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency has 1606, as well as 179 webcams across its national network. KiwiRail has another 1022 across its depots, worksites and network, with 193 on the Interislander ferries.

Government departments are also well-watched.

The Ministry for Social Development, for example, has 3521 cameras. The Ministry of Justice has 3159, Corrections uses 1800 at “non-custodial sites”, Kaianga Ora another 900, and Customs 482 across five international airports and the Auckland sea cargo inspection facility.

It soon adds up, especially when you add in shops, bars, restaurants and banks.

Z petrol station reckons it has around 2000 cameras, while BP has cameras in every one of its 111 BP Connect sites and 101 BP New Zealand dealer sites.

Westpac, which calls CCTV “a strong and effective tool for keeping our customers and employees safe”, has multiple cameras in every one of its 115 branches, plus cameras on most of its 459 ATMs.

Countdown has 185 stores nationwide and cameras everywhere.

McDonald’s has 168 restaurants across New Zealand, with a spokesman saying a “typical” outlet would have around 20 public-facing CCTV cameras – amounting to around 3360.

Not to mention KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway, Starbucks …

For the Council for Civil Liberties, the worry is the creation of a surveillance society where people are videoed and tracked wherever they go.

“The presence of the cameras means that people feel the pressure to ‘act normally’, which is a chilling effect on their freedom to live their lives,” Beagle says.

Police say Crime Prevention CCTV networks help reduce and solve crime and disorder, along with helping the public feel safe.

While police don’t have many of their own cameras, they have strong partnerships, especially with local authorities, and can tap into their footage to “support the identification of suspects and gathering of evidence from CCTV footage within our community that is owned by community groups, individuals and businesses should they agree”.

Beagle is also concerned about what happens to the captured footage.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner says anyone can ask for any personal information “which is about you”, regardless of the format – whether it’s a video, photo, note, email, meeting minutes, audio recording or anything else.

The Privacy Act says if an organisation holds personal information in a way that it can be readily retrieved, it should confirm to the person asking for the information that it holds that information and give the person access to the information.

“The key thing to consider is whether the information is actually about you,” the Privacy Commissioner says.

Technology is improving too. Gone are the days of the grainy black-and-white police image.

Even the cheapest off-the-shelf cameras now deliver high-definition footage.

Facial recognition camera technology is also becoming a popular, if not controversial, sphere. The practice allows the tracking of people from camera to camera – building up a history of where they go and what they do.

Held up as a useful tool for law enforcement and businesses, in catching criminals, it’s also criticised as being a fundamental threat to a free and open society.

In 2019, a private operator of the King’s Cross train station in London deployed facial recognition in its CCTV network without telling anybody.

After a public outcry, and a probe by the Information Commissioner’s Office, the programme was scrapped.

Legislation is struggling to catch up.

Some US cities have banned the use of facial recognition technology, but in Singapore it’s being woven into everyday life.

New Zealand needs to be careful in how it proceeds, Beagle warns.

“It’s one thing to capture footage of people, it’s another to use techniques like facial recognition to identify the people,” he says.

“We find that this is an unreasonable invasion of people’s privacy and the right to be anonymous in public.”

Community Cam

When trouble started on Michelle Hohepa’s street in Mangere Bridge, Auckland, she saw how much hassle and legwork was required by police officers called out for every burglary and theft.

It got the web designer thinking. Surely there was a better way.

What if she designed a website where anyone with a CCTV camera could register it and when a crime happened, police could access their footage to try to solve crimes.

Three years later and Community Cam has more than 320 individuals and businesses registered.

Police officers can log in and search for an address or suburb and see how many cameras are in the area. They can then contact the owner who may have footage of the incident they are looking into.

“They might contact them and say, ‘Hey Michelle, can you check your cameras please and tell me if you saw anything at 10pm Sunday, we’re looking for a blue car … and if you saw it, here’s the case number, and please upload it to the website.”

It’s also proving to be a helpful tool in missing persons investigations.

Hohepa has noticed a spike in the number of people with cameras.

“When I started there was only a handful of people I knew who had them and now everyone seems to have them.”

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