Technology Tech Reviews South Africa’s private surveillance machine is fueling a digital apartheid

South Africa’s private surveillance machine is fueling a digital apartheid

This memoir is a component one of MIT Expertise Evaluate’s sequence on AI colonialism, the foundation that synthetic intelligence is rising a recent colonial world uncover. It became supported by the MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program and the Pulitzer Heart. Be taught the introduction to the sequence here.

The cameras are not there but. However the fiber already is.

Thami Nkosi points to the telltale gloomy field atop a utility pole on a avenue once home to two Nobel Peace Prize laureates: South Africa’s first Sunless president, Nelson Mandela, and the anti-apartheid activist and theologian Desmond Tutu.

It always occurs this scheme, Nkosi says. First the fiber; then the surveillance cameras. The cameras are unnecessary except there’s official connectivity to ship their video feeds encourage to a regulate room the build they would perchance well properly be monitored by folk and algorithms.

Here’s Vilakazi Road in Soweto, a ancient suburb of Johannesburg—a sprawling megacity now birthing a uniquely South African surveillance model influenced by the world surveillance commerce and train to persuade it in turn. Civil rights activists disclose it’s already fueling a digital apartheid and unraveling other folks’s democratic liberties.

A mural simply off Vilakazi Road advertises the arrival of Vuma fiber web in Soweto, South Africa.


Five years within the past, this wouldn’t own been capacity. Neither the town’s infrastructure nor present video analytics might perchance well well give a make a selection to sending and processing footage at the important scale. But then fiber coverage expanded, AI capabilities evolved, and companies out of the country, seeing a risk, began dumping the most recent surveillance technologies into the country. The local security commerce, cast beneath the pressures of a high-crime atmosphere, embraced the menu of concepts.

The form has been the like a flash creation of a centralized, coordinated, fully privatized mass surveillance operation. Vumacam, the firm constructing the nationwide CCTV community, already has over 6,600 cameras and counting, extra than 5,000 of which are concentrated in Joburg. The video footage it takes feeds into security rooms around the country, which then expend all formulation of AI tools like registration quantity plate recognition to observe population motion and tag folk.

Over the years, a rising chorus of specialists own argued that the impact of synthetic intelligence is repeating the patterns of colonial ancient previous. Here in South Africa, the build colonial legacies abound, the unfettered deployment of AI surveillance provides only 1 case gaze in how a technology that promised to bring societies into the future is threatening to ship them encourage to the previous.

Two streets over from Vilakazi, with its touristy polish, the the rest of Soweto—a predominantly Sunless township—is aloof uncomfortable and surrounded by hills fashioned from the poisonous raze of the gold mining commerce.

Nkosi, a Sowetan born and bred, has spent 15 years battling against all formulation of injustices—gender-primarily primarily based violence, lack of water and sanitation, and, most just lately, the mass surveillance that threatens civil liberties. He sounds extra amused than bitter as we pressure by the towering heaps which own leached chemical substances into his community.

“I’m shocked I haven’t died but,” he says.

Vilakazi Road in Soweto became once home to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.


To this level Soweto has been spared the cameras, exactly on fable of it is miles uncomfortable. Vumacam at the starting up positioned them the build it might perchance well well salvage paying possibilities. As minute streets collapse to dual carriageway and dual carriageway to prosperous areas, these installations come into look: steely grey poles with thick burly discs within the center the build clusters of CCTV cameras hang like bats, their peek educated on the roads.

By the time we attain Rosebank, an upscale suburb of Johannesburg, the poles spring from concrete sooner than we can depend. Subsequent to a mall, Nkosi, now on foot, stops and gapes at the most recent fixture: a digicam quadruple the dimensions of the total others.

“That’s the foremost time—that wide, immense, immense component—that is the foremost time I’ve considered it,” he sputters with rising animation. “Here’s positively facial recognition,” he speculates, which technique that the digicam might perchance well well file video at high sufficient dedication for such technology to work. “Jesus Christ. No scheme, no scheme.”

Asked about that speculation, Vumacam says it doesn’t expend facial recognition and might perchance well well perchance simply not place in suggestions the usage of it till the technology is adequately regulated. “We don’t factor in that facial recognition technology because it stands (from any provider) is official sufficient for ethical expend,” says Cathryn Pearman, a Vumacam spokesperson.

NEC XON, the South African subsidiary of the field’s greatest facial recognition provider, which says the companies had tentative talks over two years within the past about including that characteristic to Vumacam’s platform, adds that the cameras aren’t suited to the technology, which Vumacam confirms. 

So perchance it’s coming. Possibly it’s not. That’s the component a few privatized model of public surveillance. It’s in fact exhausting to know.

Neighborhood activist Thami Nkosi


The foremost component Grab Nichols desires to blow their very maintain horns is the regulate room. Down the corridor from a shared space of enterprise condominium, the CEO of the deepest security firm AI Surveillance opens the door to a cavernous room with monitors plastered on the walls.

The monitors lope footage from cameras around the town that the firm has been employed to visual show unit. They’re additionally primarily for reveal. The exact action occurs beneath, on two rows of computer systems, the build workers visual show unit Vumacam’s Proof 360 utility platform.

In dedication to show dozens of video streams immediately, Proof 360 makes expend of AI and diverse analytics to reveal easiest the footage that triggers security alerts. These consist of systems for registration quantity plate recognition and detection of “outlandish” exercise.

The latter is equipped by a firm identified as iSentry, which at the starting up developed it for the Australian militia. The utility trains on 100 hours of footage so every digicam can study “usual” behavior, after which it flags the rest deemed out of the usual. Every digicam can additionally be configured with extra exhausting-coded guidelines. For instance, it goes to properly be programmed with limitations that folks ought to by no technique inch and zones the build vehicles ought to by no technique live.

At a monitoring set within the foremost row, the alerts appear one at a time on a security employee’s show. In a single a person’s been flagged for running, in a single other a lady for standing within the corridor while texting, in a Third a lady for walking too shut to a vehicle. The operator reviews each person and clicks a “Dismiss” button on all of them. There’s additionally a bid field and a button marked “Escalate.”

An escalated alert is kicked encourage to the 2d row, the build a dispatch team coordinates a response primarily primarily based on the alert form and the patron’s instructions. On occasion which technique texting an on-living security guard to dispel loiterers. Various cases it technique calling the police to arrest a suspected criminal.

Vumacam’s Proof 360 platform makes expend of registration quantity plate recognition to title wanted vehicles.


Nichols points to a wanted-vehicle alert, which has pulled in files from a database that the South African Police Service, or SAPS, maintains for vehicles linked to criminal exercise. “It is terribly important that you just own about these vehicles,” he reads within the feedback that SAPS wrote as a warning to security guards tasked with responding to the alert and apprehending the perpetrators. “They’re inquisitive a few couple of home invasions and murders and are very unpleasant. Exercise high-caliber weapons and might perchance well well perchance simply not hesitate to shoot. Name your security firm and SAPS IMMEDIATELY.”

Vumacam makes expend of a subscription-primarily primarily based model: entities registered with the deepest security commerce regulator as properly as SAPS and metropolitan police departments can rent salvage admission to to whichever cluster of digicam feeds they need within the Proof 360 platform. In 2019, the firm charged 730 South African rand (roughly $50) a month per digicam. It declined to give its latest pricing.

The majority of Vumacam’s subscribers own to this level been deepest security companies like AI Surveillance, which provide the rest from armed guards to monitoring for a wide quantity of clients, including colleges, companies, and residential neighborhoods. This became always the conception: Vumacam CEO Ricky Croock started AI Surveillance with Nichols rapidly after founding Vumacam after which stepped away to live far off from conflicts with diverse Vumacam possibilities.

As of late a Vumacam subscription has change into a de facto usual for security companies that feature in and around Johannesburg’s extra prosperous suburbs and commercial areas. “I don’t seek a public condominium provider being ready to successfully provide public security without the cameras,” says Ryan Roseveare, who lives in Craighall Park, one of many foremost suburbs within the country to adopt Vumacam.

These deepest security companies dominate responsibilities in overall connected to policing, even supposing they don’t own the identical shapely powers. Whereas South Africa has simply over 1,100 police stations with simply over 180,000 workers members, there are 11,372 registered security companies and 564,540 actively employed security guards, extra than the police and the militia blended. 

The imbalance is a remnant of apartheid. In the slack 1970s, the ruling Nationwide Birthday celebration deployed police to protect its political interests, controlling usual unrest in opposition to the authorities. These responsibilities took precedence over exact police work, leaving an opening for deepest gamers.

South Africa has extra deepest security guards, employed by companies like Constancy ADT, than the police and militia blended.


Later, an already underresourced police pressure downsized additional as a situation of post-apartheid reform. The deepest security commerce ballooned alongside the country’s staggering rates of crime. South Africa recorded extra than four cases as many homicides per capita because the US within the final fiscal year.

Authorities policy encouraged communities and the police to collaborate with these deepest companies. However the consequence has been the evolution of an increasingly extra martial deepest security sector. On a pressure around Johannesburg, you might perchance well well seek these paramilitary fashions in each space: uniformed males in tactical vehicles, toting immense guns. They’re far extra prevalent than the categorical police. The difference is that they serve paying clients, not the public ardour.

Upright because the authorities did not provide boots on the bottom, it additionally fell short on assembly the surveillance calls for of personal residents and companies. Johannesburg first installed cameras in 2009, and this day they quantity 574, primarily primarily based on city officers. However the town’s been tormented by media reviews of nonfunctioning cameras. Even the 25 installed on Vilakazi Road in 2017, part of a super-city initiative, are now long previous, Nkosi says.

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Vumacam stepped into this hole available within the market: its CEO, Croock, is a constituted of Johannesburg’s security commerce, having beforehand operated a deepest patrol and monitoring carrier within the extra prosperous suburbs. With the introduction of fiber web, he saw the chance to add web-connected cameras and AI analytics to security companies’ choices.

Vumacam partnered with the Chinese language firm Hikvision and the Swedish firm Axis Communications to provide the hardware while iSentry and Milestone, a most usual Denmark-primarily primarily based video surveillance administration utility, supplied the utility. From there, it teamed up with deepest companies patrolling wealthier residential areas and erected poles with high-definition cameras the build they wanted on high of Johannesburg’s fiber community.

On its pause of the nick tag, Vumacam promised usual maintenance, high uptime, and storage of the footage for as a lot as 30 days, within the course of which officers and shapely representatives might perchance well well put a question to a extra permanent reproduction for expend as proof in crime investigations. By March 2021, 50 security companies had been subscribed to its carrier. Vumacam declined to disclose what number of possibilities it has this day.

Delivery air of Vilakazi Road, the the rest of Soweto, a predominantly Sunless township, is aloof uncomfortable and surrounded by hills fashioned from the poisonous raze of the gold mining commerce.


Extra just lately, the firm has sought adoption in malls, space of enterprise buildings, and even other folks’s properties. It doesn’t space its maintain cameras within these areas, nonetheless possibilities can connect their present CCTV feeds to Proof 360 for complete security monitoring of public and deepest areas.

Having achieved this market penetration, Vumacam is now pushing a recent stage of centralization and coordination to fight criminal exercise. It pitches its resolution so that you just can display screen criminals, from the moment they commit a crime, to wherever within the town they fight to flee.

Proof 360 users can add wanted vehicles—those reported stolen or suspected of being worn to commit a crime—to their very maintain deepest database on the platform or a shared database that enables all users to work together to observe vehicles within the course of jurisdictions; in vehicle-dependent Johannesburg, this is also as focused as facial recognition. “In essence, lets own an incident on one of our cameras, and the safety companies are all now attempting to intercept that identical vehicle in a coordinated fashion,” Croock says.

Vumacam boasts that this technique is orders of magnitude sooner than ready for a police investigation. Users needn’t file a crime file and receive a case quantity from the police earlier than including a plate quantity to the machine. “What if there’s an armed theft that’s simply came about?” says Kelly de Ricquebourg, Vumacam’s product utility manager. “I’m going to be ready to put this registration quantity plate in and judge them within the subsequent 10 minutes. It’s not going to get rid of me 10 minutes to salvage a case quantity from SAPS. It takes me as a lot as 48 hours.”

After 48 hours, if a registration quantity plate within the shared database aloof doesn’t own a case quantity, it’s routinely deleted, she adds. But there’s no transparency or mechanism for public accountability about how completely this cleansing is completed; nor is the identical process applied to plates kept in a single and all’s deepest database, which technique any plate quantity might perchance well well be added without any vetting. As a consequence, vehicles might perchance well well be monitored and pulled over for false or illegitimate causes.

Such apprehensions might perchance well well properly be performed by either security companies or the police, or within the course of joint operations between the two. To live far off from the paperwork of their very maintain machine, which entails opening an enquiry docket, police in most cases seek files from deepest security companies to expend Vumacam’s community. “We had SAPS in this regulate room simply final week checking it out and seeing what we’re doing,” Nichols says of AI Surveillance. “Final year, mid-July, a police man came for a corpulent day so he’ll own salvage admission to to the cameras.”

Vumacam says its technique aided within the apprehension of 97 vehicles and the arrest of 85 folk within the Sandton Central Enchancment District, a commercial space of Johannesburg, within the course of the foremost seven months after its cameras had been installed. Pearman says it became “not privy” to info about whether the arrests led to convictions.

Rosebank, an upscale suburb of Johannesburg, is one of many the build Vumacam cameras abound.


Vumacam is now constructing out extra applications on Proof 360, including a machine to detect registration quantity plate cloning—when two vehicles reveal up in diverse locations with same plate numbers. It’s additionally opening up the platform for third-celebration developers to add their very maintain applications and distribute them to its users.

In parallel, it’s extending its physical infrastructure to the the rest of the country. Later this year, Croock says, the firm will change to a recent model, the build possibilities will pay a flat price to salvage salvage admission to to the corpulent community of cameras instead of simply a replacement. Companies will aloof be ready to filter the alerts to their jurisdiction, nonetheless they’ll additionally be ready to search around any feed within the country.

The recent technique will allow Vumacam to space poles and cameras no topic whether there are paying possibilities nearby. “Whereas you happen to inch to your cell cellphone provider, you don’t seek files from him, ‘I’d like a tower there and a tower there.’ You disclose, ‘I’d like coverage,’” he says.

“We resolve to fabricate certain we salvage that coverage,” de Ricquebourg adds, “so as that there might perchance be not one of these thing as a potential for the vehicles to miss those cameras or cowl from the machine.”

The crime is exact. On the day we walked around Rosebank with Nkosi, keeping out our smartphones as recording devices, two passersby called out warnings within minutes of every other. “Ma’am you ought to be careful around here,” acknowledged one. “That’s a in fact nice cellphone. They’re going to get rid of it, and you’re going to cry too great,” acknowledged the diverse.

It’s not simply petty theft—though both Nkosi and the South Africa–primarily primarily based reporter on this part, Heidi Swart, did own their telephones stolen simply days earlier than our assembly. The final three months of 2021 saw 165,000 violent physical crimes like damage, rape, fundamental assault, and theft reported to police nationwide.

It’s why Craighall Park and Craighall, two suburbs that share a residents’ association, had been eager to be early adopters of Vumacam, says Roseveare, who oversaw the firm’s initial installations. “When the cameras first went up, the community positively felt safer,” he says. He believes they deterred crime—though he admits that’d be advanced to reveal with statistics. “In South Africa, crime is always going up like inflation,” he says, so the impact would manifest as a slower elevate or a discount in its average severity. 

There are now 159 cameras within the course of both communities, including 70 with registration quantity plate recognition, at the total exit and entry points and foremost intersections. 



But absent from the conversation is why the crime exists within the foremost space. Researchers of business societies own time and once more demonstrated that inequality drives crime. No longer easiest is South Africa the field’s most unequal country, nonetheless the outlet is deeply racialized, a component of apartheid’s legacy. The latest authorities reviews reveal that in 2015 half of the country lived in poverty; 93% of those other folks had been Sunless.

As a consequence, it’s predominantly white other folks who own the technique to pay for surveillance, and predominantly Sunless other folks who pause up without a disclose about being surveilled.

Adding to all of it, AI tools like facial recognition and anomaly detection don’t always work, and the penalties aren’t evenly distributed. The likelihood that facial recognition utility will manufacture a wrong identification will enhance dramatically when footage is recorded exterior, beneath uncontrolled prerequisites, and that risk is great better for Sunless other folks. 

In many systems, the cameras own re-created the digital same of passbooks, or inside of passports, an apartheid-period machine that the authorities worn to restrict Sunless other folks’s physical movements in white enclaves, says Michael Kwet, a visiting fellow at Yale Law College who studies the South African surveillance commerce. Easiest Sunless other folks had been required to preserve the passbooks; white other folks moved freely. Pearman says such claims “purposefully strive to mislead the public to fabricate terror instead of hope the build technology is a hit in battling crime.”

In the meantime, the privatization of public safety has crowded out discussion of how the identical cash might perchance well well be spent if not on mass surveillance: improved salvage admission to to water, sanitation, electrical energy, properly being care, training, and early life employment to alleviate the poverty fueling the crime. Companies instead seek a commerce opportunity.

“They’re in fact monetizing public areas and public existence,” Nkosi says.

“Vumacam’s technology is honed for the motive of battling crime and as such would not own mass surveillance functionality nor diagram,” says Pearman. “The worries of so-called ‘activists’ quoted is propaganda that we predict deliberately malicious, defamatory and without any basis in fact.”


And though crime instant decreased within the course of the pandemic, it has once once more exploded. Many companies we interviewed argue that this justifies extra funding in surveillance technologies. “​​Surveillance infrastructure honed on crime is required to curbing, battling, and thought crime which presently impedes the funding and economic explain so severe to job provision and poverty alleviation,” Pearman says.

“We own considered that surveillance technologies that had been properly installed and had analytics as part of the solutions proactive in space of reactive, had a immense form on criminal activities,” adds Jan Erasmus, NEC XON’s commerce lead for surveillance and analytics.

Erasmus says security companies are now working to make stronger their facial recognition capabilities to title suspected criminals. The technology relies on a database of wanted folk’ faces to study with faces extracted from surveillance footage. One security provider, Bidvest Protea Coin, is taking part with NEC XON to implement a machine the usage of 48,000 mugshots of suspects wanted for the rest from rhino and abalone poaching to ATM bombings and theft of rude set batteries. Both companies hope to share the machine with the the rest of the safety commerce as properly as with banks and authorities gamers.

But there own already been cases via which facial recognition has been worn on face databases of folk with no criminal background. In 2016, when economically disadvantaged Sunless students at universities within the course of the country protested against high tuition charges, NEC XON level-headed protesters’ faces from images and videos that had been circulating on WhatsApp and social media; then it when in contrast them against college databases of pupil ID images. Erasmus says the goal became now to not live the protesters nonetheless to search out out whether they had been students (most had been not, he says) and forestall afflict to college property, which is estimated to own totaled 786 million rand ($52 million) nationally. 

But 5 years later, when protests erupted anew, students acknowledged they felt they had been being criminalized. Police arrived with riot equipment, lunge gas, and rubber bullets, and they openly filmed students at shut differ for thus-called “proof” assortment, says Ntyatyambo Volsaka, a 19-year-primitive regulation pupil and activist at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“We’re attempting to fabricate certain that all people is getting an training,” he says, “nonetheless the police kind out us like animals.” Erasmus says NEC XON did not reduction police with surveillance within the course of the 2021 protests.

These identical companies are constructing surveillance systems around the field. South Africa represents not easiest a high-explain market nonetheless additionally a space to ultimate their technologies. When AI is “developed in Europe and The usa and all of those locations,” says Kyle Dicks, a Johannesburg-primarily primarily based sales engineer for Axis Communications, “in overall South Africa is the distance to put them to the test.”

Vumacam’s quietly sprawling digicam community has met with microscopic resistance since it launched in February 2019.

But pushback came final year from an unlikely champion of privacy rights: the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA), a body tasked with guaranteeing that someone who erects buildings on municipal walkways doesn’t preserve up traffic or nick into vitality cables or water mains. Since Vumacam’s cameras are mounted on particular poles on public sidewalks, the firm needed JRA approval. 

It became all nonetheless crusing till the JRA all immediately refused to grant Vumacam additional permissions, arguing that the firm would expend the cameras to “stare” on the public. The agency acknowledged it might perchance well well not proceed till the town released a framework to control surveillance cameras. Vumacam took the agency to court docket. 

Inner most security guards visual show unit the streets of Johannesburg the usage of Vumacam’s surveillance community.


Finally, the JRA misplaced the case, nonetheless not the privacy debate. The come to a dedication dominated that the JRA’s job became to protect the integrity of dual carriageway infrastructure, not human rights. But, acknowledging the topic’s complexity, the court docket kept far off from issuing judgment on the alleged privacy infringement.

Since then, there’s been no additional litigation from civil society organizations, and no laws specifically regulating surveillance cameras in public areas or accompanying analytics like facial recognition. The public is completely preoccupied with extra instant problems, Nkosi says: “Individuals are unnerved regarding the build their next job goes to return from, the build their food goes to return from, and the political instability within the country. We haven’t trained our public sufficient to fancy the hazards of surveillance and what it technique in a democratic society.”

However the questions raised by the lawsuit own easiest grown extra pressing. The arena surveillance commerce has always exchanged suggestions within the course of borders. To in this day and age, the US authorities, the foremost foremost funder of recent surveillance technologies like facial recognition, is a important institution shaping their direction via its requirements and vendor rankings, says Os Keyes, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington.

Heaps of the technologies being worn in South Africa emerged beneath that affect and own continued to create with the US market in suggestions. Now both technology and ideology are starting up to inch along with the lope encourage in that direction.

AI Surveillance, to illustrate, desires to search out clients within the US that can feed their CCTV footage to its regulate room and monitoring workers in Johannesburg. CEO Nichols thinks the cheaper local wages will give the firm a aggressive edge, as will its trip handling security within the South African market. “The US is extra worn within the hardware and recording—there’s extra cameras and additional footage kept,” he says. “South Africa is extra worn within the prognosis of the feed and the dispatch—out of necessity.”

Vumacam has additionally begun to adapt its model to diverse markets. It’s moved into Nigeria, the build it’s placing cameras on present infrastructure like cell towers in space of erecting its maintain poles. In diverse locations which own present CCTV digicam networks, such because the US and UK, it might perchance well well focal level on selling its Proof 360 platform. “We own we’re onto something,” Croock says. “We seek immense world ambitions.”

There are indicators that the the rest of the surveillance commerce is inspiring toward a platform-primarily primarily based technique as properly. Milestone, the video administration utility that Proof 360 is built on, equally enables someone to assemble AI applications like facial and registration quantity plate recognition for its utility. So does Axis Communications, which has locations of work within the US and South Africa and just lately launched its maintain platform.

This year NEC, the parent firm of NEC XON, additionally plans to begin a recent product identified as NEC Nexus that enables authorities companies to mix their watchlists in a scheme that echoes Vumacam’s centralization of registration quantity plate databases. Nexus is presently being trialed within the UK, the build NEC has the very most life like pilot of live facial recognition, and might perchance well well perchance simply soon be rolled out globally, even supposing there are no recent plans for its implementation in South Africa, Erasmus says.


Nkosi fears what might perchance well well happen next. He’s watched governments around the field embody these developments beneath the pretense of public safety earlier than inevitably rising it for mass surveillance of activists and civilians, with targets including the Sunless Lives Topic motion within the US and the Uyghur minority in China.

“Finally you are going to own the train colluding with these deepest companies, for the reason that train has no ability to bustle this kind of broad advanced community of CCTV cameras,” he says. “That’s the bigger hazard for me.”  

Certainly, South Africa is within the process of constructing out a national biometric identification database called ABIS that can perchance well consist of the face of every resident and foreign customer. Blended with digicam upgrades to Vumacam’s nationwide surveillance community and expanded expend of facial recognition, ABIS might perchance well well eventually allow the authorities to observe the movements of each person within the country.

“We attain not underplay the very exact risk of activists, journalists, and commerce other folks being tracked illegally by snide folk (some with lethal outcomes),” Pearman says. “On the opposite hand, other folks can’t be ‘surveilled’ the usage of our technology or systems which are not built to surveil folk.” 

“​​NEC XON will always make sure that the expend of facial recognition is completed ethically,” Erasmus says.

As we proceed walking via Rosebank, Nkosi begins to depend the cameras. Seven on one pole. Three within the course of the avenue. Six on one other.  

“The train might perchance well well simply not be wide awake to it valid now, nonetheless we’re heading there,” he says encourage in his home. “The areas [for activism and protest] are going to shrink. Inner most companies are going to fabricate a killing.”

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