Nabbed by You Tube
Could social media be giving rise to a generation of citizen crime-busters?
Leandross Cutajar must have thought it was a cinch: catch up with the elderly woman ambling down a Sliema side street, snatch her necklace and enjoy the spoils. Nobody would ever know.
But a CCTV camera and You Tube account put paid to those hopes. Footage of that Tuesday afternoon mugging went viral within 24 hours. By Thursday, Mr Cutajar was under arrest, and three days later he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.
Mr Cutajar was cut down to size by curious citizens who watched – and shared – a You Tube video of his crime. His case is not an isolated one: as security cameras and personal videos become more commonplace, so too are the number of criminals being caught red-handed and identified on the web.
Thieves strolling in warehouses, young men snatching jewellery, men battering women, even a female gas cylinder thief – all have had their 15 seconds of You Tube fame.
But is this form of citizen policing a positive development, or is it a slippery slope to vigilante-style justice?
According to criminologist Mary Muscat, it is a plus – but only if citizens use this new power responsibly.
“From the point of view of the victim and of society protecting itself, it’s definitely a bonus. It can act as a deterrent to potential offenders while empowering the citizen,” Dr Muscat said.
The danger, she said, was people uploading video footage not to apprehend criminals, but for their own personal reasons.
“In this respect, society still needs to educate itself. One cannot just sling mud and hide his or her hand, without expecting repercussions.”
Police are well aware of the benefits such crowd-sourced investigations can have. In a country of Malta’s size, going unrecognised is fairly difficult when laptops across the country are flashing images of your face.
But the police warn that having video footage uploaded online can sometimes be a hindrance rather than a help.
“There may be occasions when the public produces videos which actually hinder police investigations,” a police spokeswoman explained.
The inverse also applied: police risked compromising ongoing investigations if they divulged information to the public, she said, “as this could give ample time to the culprit to dispose of such evidence”.
Maltese law does not make it a crime to film people in public and the Data Protection Act explicitly states that matters concerning public security and criminal law are not bound by its provisions.
Modern-day CCTV crime fighters, however, cannot just assume that their involvement in catching the criminal ends the moment they upload their video footage.
While in some cases the video footage will stand on its own as evidence, there will be times when the victim will be required to testify.
“If the law requires the complaint of the injured party, then that party has to be willing to testify in court; placing video footage on the internet and thinking that the case is solved is purely foolish,” Dr Muscat said.
And as the phenomenon keeps growing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between one’s public and private spaces, in what sociologist Albert Bell described as the “youtubification” of society.
Dr Bell said people often talked and complained about the increasing surveillance by the powers-that-be, but by indiscriminately filming and uploading footage of one another, they were themselves contributing to this culture of round-the-clock surveillance.
August 1997: A St Julian’s resident frustrated by repeated acts of vandalism on his property decides to set up a video camera on his roof. His efforts pay off when footage shows a man, ostensibly his neighbour, damaging his car.
March 2002: Two German students holidaying in Malta witness – and videotape – a fight in Paceville between a group of young men which left one man dead. The video was used as evidence in court.
March 2004: A man is found guilty of causing a Paceville death. Jurors are shown CCTV footage belonging to a nearby hotel of the fight that led to the death.
January 2011: A mobile phone video is posted to You Tube in which a man, Emanuel Sammut, can be seen beating up Joanne Muscat. However, Ms Muscat decides to drop assault charges.
January 2012: A man caught on CCTV stealing a purse from a Valletta shop is caught after an online manhunt.