Does the city need a Big Brother?

Closed-circuit television cameras can help ensure safety of the public but they can also pose a threat to the privacy of individuals. The debate has been reignited in Delhi as the AAP govt moves ahead with a proposal to install 1.4 lakh CCTV cameras across the city

August 06, 2018 01:38 am | Updated 09:35 am IST - New Delhi

 Under the scanner: The Capital already has over two lakh CCTV cameras installed in public places by various agencies, including the DMRC and the NDMC.

Under the scanner: The Capital already has over two lakh CCTV cameras installed in public places by various agencies, including the DMRC and the NDMC.

Closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras have often proved useful in solving crimes. Recently, six men were arrested within days of burgling a house in north Delhi’s Lahori Gate after the police recovered CCTV camera footage of the accused dancing before committing the crime.

An issue, however, has raised several eyebrows. When there is no crime but the cameras keep rolling — recording the daily activities of the people in public.

Last week, a 27-year-old woman filed a police complaint against her neighbour as one of the CCTV cameras installed by him focused on her balcony.

A restaurant that had come up next to the woman’s residence had installed several CCTV cameras outside the shop. One of them focused on her balcony. With the woman claiming that her privacy was breached, a senior police officer assured her of swift action in the case.

‘Necessary tool’

The Capital already has over two lakh CCTV cameras installed in public places by various agencies, including the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) and the Delhi International Airport Limited.

In addition, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government has embarked on an ambitious project to install 1.4 lakh CCTV cameras across the city. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has pegged the project as a “necessary tool” to improve the safety and security of people, especially women.

The implications of constant CCTV surveillance on the privacy of individuals need public debate.

Susceptible to abuse

The Delhi government has said that residents’ welfare associations (RWAs) and market traders’ associations (MTAs) will get access to CCTV footage of their respective areas.

Privacy advocate Apar Gupta told The Hindu that this was susceptible to abuse.

“It is like giving power without any purpose limitation. While community policing models will benefit sharing of information and crime investigations, they quickly manifest themselves in the form of moral policing.”

“In a society, where there are pre-existing notions of viewing women as vulnerable individuals that are restrained in the evening, certain castes and people having certain appearances as natural deviants, where the poor are denied access to public spaces such as parks, it will result in policing of personal behaviour which is within our scope of individuality and protected by our fundamental rights,” Mr. Gupta said.

Senior advocate and constitutional law expert Sajan Poovayya said the problem with giving RWAs or MTAs access to CCTV camera footage is that it allows for a back door delegation of an essential sovereign function which ought to be carried out by the government alone, to private, unaccountable and non-State actors.

Mr. Gupta stressed that “constant video surveillance replaces each punctuation of our public interactions and behaviours with a question mark.”

‘Am I always being watched?’

“Am I being watched? This will put several people in a straitjacket of behavioural conformity, where people tend to mould their behaviour to what is expected of them on camera.”

He said normalising public surveillance will spur a greater sense of insecurity and threat.

“We will replace our shared trust and understanding in others with a sense of fear and suspicion towards strangers. This will undermine our constitutional value of fraternity towards each other,” he added.

Question of consent

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court had on August 24, 2017, unanimously ruled that right to privacy was a Fundamental Right under the Constitution.

A nine-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice J.S. Khehar had ruled that “right to privacy is an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and entire Part III of the Constitution”.

To a question on whether consent of the public should be taken before subjecting them to constant CCTV surveillance in public spaces, Mr. Gupta said, “The common notion that everything in public space is public and everything in a private place is private arises from a fundamental misunderstanding.”

“Privacy is about informational autonomy which continues to a decreased threshold but still continues to exist in public spaces. This relates to limitations on the proportionality of surveillance technologies to the intended benefit, in which the least invasive measures should be used,” he said.

Five years prior — on October 16, 2012, — the Planning Commission-constituted Group of Experts on Privacy, under the chairmanship of Justice A.P. Shah, had submitted a report wherein it recommended a framework on right to privacy in India.

The panel stated that a policy should address privacy-related concerns around data protection on the Internet and appropriate protection from unauthorised interception, and audio and video surveillance. The committee had opined that there was need to hold the data controller accountable for collection, processing and use to which the data is put, thereby ensuring that privacy of the data subject is guaranteed.

Lack of regulatory standards

Earlier this year, Lieutenant-Governor Anil Baijal had formed a committee, comprising members from the police force, to formulate a comprehensive framework on regulating CCTV cameras installed in the city — both by government agencies and private parties.

The committee report highlighted that CCTVs had the potential to invade the privacy of individuals and that there was need to strike a balance between the right to privacy, and right to life and property by regulation of the processing, including obtaining, holding, use or disclosure, of information obtained through CCTVs.

“There have been reported instances of misuse of CCTVs for intrusion and compromises on privacy of individuals. The use of surveillance camera systems should not be permitted to become a tool to violate the privacy of individuals,” the L-G Office had said.

The committee proposed that every owner and data controller of CCTV systems collecting any information from a public space shall report to the police disclosing the purpose, number, location of CCTV systems and other details, including the manner of usage, handling and storage of data or information through the system. In a public interaction event on July 29, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had rejected these recommendations.

He alleged that the recommendations would allow the police to demand money to give licences for cameras.

A major election promise, the AAP government is in the process of placing a proposal to install 1.4 lakh CCTV cameras in public spaces in front of the Cabinet. Each of the 70 Assembly constituencies will get 2,000 cameras.

CCTVs in classrooms

The AAP government had also proposed installing CCTV cameras in State-run schools but the Delhi High Court took up a plea contending the move and asked the government to clarify why such a step was necessary. The plea had contended that installing cameras without any regulatory mechanism on access to its footage could lead to incidents of stalking and molestation.

Taking note of the issue, a Bench of Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C. Hari Shankar had said “the whole idea of being under constant surveillance or scrutiny” and its effect on the children needed further deliberation.

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