The challenge is to ensure tighter compliance and public-private sector collaboration to keep the personally identifiable data from being ‘conveniently’ misused.

From complying with strict safe-distancing regulations to suffering diminished customer footfall, the region’s Food and Beverage (F&B) industry has been greatly affected by the pandemic.

Fortunately, technology has played a key role in facilitating the “safe reopening” of F&B businesses.  Some venues have even taken their technology efforts to the next level and started relying on video technologies layered with analytics to generate heatmapping and occupancy statistics, crowd counting, and distancing detection.

Yes, video technology has come a long way, and it is now more functional and capable than ever. As the pandemic rages on, and lockdown measures around the world vacillate without predictability, more F&B businesses have been forced to explore the vast, untapped potential of digital video surveillance technology and analytics.

Adjusting to unpredictability

One owner of a Singapore café/bar Bunkerbunker, Byron Lim, is cautiously optimistic. While the ability to reopen his business was a relief, Byron had been struggling to ensure that safety measures are strictly followed. With ‘safe-distancing’ measures most probably continuing indefinitely, his main challenge is to ensure that rules are followed even with limited staff on site

Lim has been trying to find a solution that would ensure easy and non-intrusive crowd management. For many business owners like him, video and analytics solutions can work, but this involves an investment: “I’ve heard about devices that provide all-in-one solutions, but as a small business, it may not be necessary for us to sink cost into these if they don’t meet our needs.”

Benjamin Low, Vice President, APAC, Milestone Systems

This investment cost can be a key deterrent for small businesses, but one vendor claims that smaller-scale solutions are not as costly as one would think. Said Benjamin Low, Vice President (APAC) of video management software company Milestone Systems: “One of the biggest adoption obstacles we’ve been seeing has been perceived cost and complexities. However, for a simple crowd-control video system, the cost could be as low as S$3,000 – S$4,000. We’ve also seen that the government is spending a lot of money to try to help our SMEs to adopt innovative technologies.”

Based on the firm’s recent study, people are beginning to come to terms with these technology safeguards: eight in 10 Singaporean surveyed were receptive to the usage of video surveillance technology such as thermal imaging cameras and crowd management video analytics.

The study also found that having knowledge of the benefits of video technology and the privacy measures being put in place are key to gaining acceptance in the current state of unpredictable forces of change.

Safety vs privacy concerns

Since the early days of the pandemic, video surveillance technology has played a part in the fight against COVID-19. This extensive usage is probably why many people have a positive perception of the technology.

From the outset, thermal imaging cameras had been deployed to quickly identify people with fever. Combined with video analytics capabilities, these active assets had improved efficiency and accuracy when processing the entry of small crowds. Video tele-kiosks have been used to facilitate video consultations with doctors while monitoring vital signs. In Singapore, a safe-distancing robot has even been deployed to patrol a popular park to remind users of safety rules.

However, the hurdle of video technologies being perceived as intrusive and a potential threat to privacy has always existed. Even before the pandemic, consumers around the world had been expressing concerns on the usage of video monitoring in public places.

In fact, according to Low, 27% of respondents in Singapore were still sceptical and did not feel that the benefits of video technology outweigh their personal privacy needs. These respondents also felt that there were insufficient regulatory measures in place to deter abuse of video technology.

One respondent, Wong Cheng Kim, 30, expressed her concern: “I’m not comfortable at all with being filmed in the public places I visit. In the current times, it already feels like my personal information is overexposed. With CCTV, it feels like even my image is being captured and I have no idea for what reason and how it’s being used.”

Another interviewee, Peter Ang, 75, said: “I actually don’t mind if the public places I visit have video cameras installed to control the crowds and identify people who might be sick. Especially in Singapore, there is enough regulation to ensure that I’m protected regarding the personal data handling. I’m just happy I can enjoy a shopping spree or a meal out safely, given the circumstances”.

Nevertheless, in other parts of South-east Asia there are talks of banning facial recognition features in CCTV cameras, whereas in others, these technologies are thriving.

Instilling awareness of ethical tech use

While consumers are generally receptive of video technologies despite the privacy and data protection concerns, a significant portion of the population is unfamiliar with the purpose and benefits of such solutions.

Low noted, referring to his firm’s recent study: “The good news is that the use of video technology is more accepted when personally identifiable information is removed. There is a range of solutions that will help ensure data protection requirements are met, even as these technologies become part and parcel of our daily lives. Such solutions in the market provide operators with the ability to anonymize data through privacy masking, data purging and much more.”

While the public may have become more receptive to the use of video surveillance technology, they have demanded greater emphasis on organizational responsibility when it comes to data protection and privacy. The increased use of digital solutions in general, has also increased the risk of personal data-use impropriety.

Even as more organizations collect more data from people—done in the name of the pandemic — not all have put in place the mandated data protection policies and solutions. Some authorities have even received flak for mistakes in conveying data privacy policies. It is therefore understandable that some consumer segments remain skeptical.

To that, Low concluded that the public sector, technology partners and businesses must collaborate to overcome the challenges of making video surveillance and analytics compliant and acceptable: “As consumers remain vigilant about how businesses are using their personal data, businesses must prioritize data protection and practice full transparency to build greater trust in technologies that keep our communities safe. They will need to adapt to new consumer attitudes around safety and health, work together with regulatory bodies and technology partners to find ways to maintain individual privacy and comply with data protection regulations at the same time.”