Forget battle between Delhi CM and governor; here’s the real issue with CCTV cameras

Arvind Kejriwal wants CCTVs around the capital. LG Anil Baijal imposes numerous conditions and constraints. That has been the dominant narrative in this controversy so far. But what exactly can these cameras achieve for a city and where lie the pitfalls?

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal launched the month with a “visual” move. He read out and defiantly tore a report sent by Lieutenant-Governor Anil Baijal on the installation of closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance camera systems in the capital.

The LG’s document referred to a monitoring panel, police licensing and public suggestions for installation of CCTV cameras. It said that every owner and data controller of camera systems culling information from the public needs to disclose the “purpose, number, location, manner of usage, handling and storage of data or information” as well as other related details.

However, the CM is of the firm opinion that these cameras can reduce the crime rate by half. He dismissed the need for police licensing and pointed out that for the past three years, the Centre has stalled his government’s move, accusing the LG of “politicising” the safety of citizens. AAP’s initial 2015 poll promise of installing 10 lakh CCTVs eventually came down to 2.4 lakh. These are proposed to be added to the 2.5 lakh cameras that are already in the city.

The Delhi CCTV saga

The main issue of contention in the Delhi CCTV controversy relates to the long hours of footage that these cameras will capture. Who will be the controllers of this information? The networks function under different public and private authorities. These include the Delhi Police, Delhi Metro, municipal corporations and commercial establishments. However, there are no protocols in place. The standard operating procedures (SOPs) that can “control, access and handle” the data are not streamlined. Hence, there are significant concerns raised over intrusion into the privacy of the people?

AAP wants to continue with the SOPs of the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC). Arvind Kejriwal has pointed out that the camera’s eye has helped to reduce eve teasing in public, rape cases, alcoholic behaviour in parks and illegal parking. He is opposed to waiting or following the LG’s recommendations. “In democracy, it is people’s rule and not police rule, L-G sahab,” was the CM’s parting shot in the latest face-off.

On the other hand, it is a fact that the police cannot directly access the entire feed of the huge CCTV network, especially the data collected by private networks, and there are no guidelines to preserve or prevent the misuse of such footage. Hence, police sources note that it is important to put into place a single, central command and control centre. Secondly, reliable use of technology and efficient SOPs are vital but missing.

The debate thus reflects not just political but also the larger social issue of surveillance vs privacy. Opponents of CCTVs are decrying not the cameras per se but “uncontrolled and unregulated” ones. They claim that such CCTVs cannot give any positive results for security and law enforcement. They might also “encroach upon the privacy of individuals.”

Experience in other cities

What are the plus points of the CCTVs that have lured its supporters to install them?

The cameras have helped to nail criminals, such as Delhi’s horrific Nirbhaya rapists, Bengaluru’s Gauri Lankesh murderers and Mumbai’s “chaddi banyan” gang. Surat, the fourth fastest growing city, has a badly understaffed police force, but reduced its crime rate by 27% when it went in for CCTV installation. Hyderabad reduced its crime rate by 14% in 2016. It has a number of installed cameras thanks to the unsparing efforts of its Chief Minister K.C. Rao. But there too, while the city is using the technology for policing and traffic management, why are the cameras not used for fixing civic issues, ask citizens.

Signage on a stone near CCTV camera post by Delhi Police near Hauz Khas, New Delhi. Pic: P Subhashish/CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Lucknow are the eight cities that have been chosen by the Nirbhaya Funds scheme for the safety of women. According to the scheme, the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development has approved of a Nirbhaya funds grant of Rs 667 crore to Bengaluru, in order to ensure the safety of women in both public spaces as well as in transport systems.

In partnership with the Suraksha Mitra scheme in Bengaluru for community policing, 10,000 CCTV hotspots based on Artificial Intelligence have been identified, in order to observe and document human behaviour. Called ‘Smart Eyes’, the technology will note and report odd actions and anomalies, even something like a sudden increase in the number of people crossing a street!

In Mumbai, the police operates a network of 5,000 CCTVs, with control rooms at its headquarters monitoring the cameras.

In Kolkata, the government is in the process of putting up 244 cameras in the administrative headquarters, Nabanna, which would take the total to 400.

Chennai has a large base with almost 33,835 camera spots.

Threat to privacy?

So where does all the information and data from CCTV cameras finally go?

In March 2015, the Delhi High Court had ruled that individual privacy would not be encroached upon. However, the CCTV feed of the Delhi Metro, which carries around 25 lakh commuters everyday, can be accessed by DMRC as well as CISF. Even in the airports, it is possible to link the analytics, facial recognition, number plate reading and a lot of personal information through the Aadhar number.

There has also been a Cabinet decision to set up 6,350 cameras in Delhi Transport Corporation and cluster buses, which would most likely be monitored in a control room in north Delhi. In 1,028 government-run schools too, about 1.47 lakh CCTVs are likely to be installed. A number of private schools already have CCTV installations, while resident welfare associations (RWAs) and market traders’ associations (MTAs) will also gain access to the CCTV footage. Hence, the issue of security vs privacy becomes an important flashpoint.

Maharashtra treats CCTV footage as “classified documents” that should be stored in a centralised location and cannot be revealed to the public, not even through RTI requests.

But while security and safety are expected to be safeguarded, it is still feared that the intrusion of CCTV cameras into private lives will create a lot of issues. Apprehensions have been raised that by prying into the lives of women, or even individuals of certain classes and castes, such camera footage would serve as a proxy form of moral policing. For instance, a couple that exchanged kisses in a Chennai train got a shock when their private moment went viral.

Moreover, by giving the right of looking into the individual lives of people, the government is, in effect, handing over the reins of good governance to “unaccountable and non-state controllers”, said privacy advocate Apar Gupta. Apar calls this “abusive” and says that it is like “giving power without any purpose limitation.”

According to legal experts, legitimising public viewing only in a sense of threat as well as low security among the people. It is bound to create a lot of mutual suspicion and distrust. Installing CCTVs in government schools without regulatory mechanisms on the footage is not safe. It could even lead to “molestation and stalking”, according to the Delhi High Court.

Policy guidelines

What is of prime importance, therefore, is efficient policy guidelines. On August 24, 2017, the Supreme Court had ruled that Right to Privacy was a Fundamental Right under the Constitution. In using CCTV cameras for public scrutiny, the “legitimate aims of the state” need to include protection of national security, prevention and investigation of crime.

However, there is no data protection law in India. One institution or controller  is deployed to manage the collection, analysis and dissemination of information. Some laws will be drawn up by the Justice B N Srikrishna committee. It has released a white paper seeking opinion and views from the public. The legislation of the institution, which will judge the possibilities of their use or misuse, is awaited.

Some countries that have already installed CCTV monitoring systems, with clear lists of rules, can be a good model for India. It is possible to refer to the European Union General Data Protection Regulation. The US guidelines drawn up by the Department of Homeland Security are another set of rules that can be followed. These are practical regulations  that can monitor as well as maintain the CCTVs.

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