Everyday voyeurism in a surveillance state

In April, a six-year-old boy sat down on a park bench in an apartment complex in Hyderabad. As it was wobbly, he rocked back and forth on it. In a tragic turn of events, the concrete bench toppled and fell on the boy, killing him. The entire incident, recorded on a CCTV camera, was available on social media within hours. In July, footage of a couple sharing an intimate moment inside the Delhi Metro was uploaded on a pornographic website.

Demand and supply side

As CCTV cameras multiply across Indian cities, there is also a sharp increase in voyeurism. The masses are constantly hooked to surveillance footage. A voraciously hungry social media and lax ethical standards have turned the surveillance experiment into a voyeur’s delight. This is the demand side of the equation.

Most Indian metropolises suffer from a shortage of staff for policing. The millions of CCTV cameras that have been installed help the police curb crime and trace criminals, keep cities clean, and ensure the smooth flow of traffic. Haphazardly parked vehicles can be penalised daily to make offenders fall in line. But instead of using the information to bring to heel criminals and create safer cities, some unethical officials have been leaking data meant for only that purpose to satiate baser, voyeuristic instincts. This is the supply side of the equation.

These images cause a lot of pain for the families and friends of those captured, especially when they see these videos on loop on mobile phones and TV channels.

Notwithstanding these facts, more and more CCTV cameras are being installed. For instance, the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation plans to install 1,439 new cameras equipped with automatic number plate recognition facility. The Delhi government is installing CCTV cameras in classrooms, apartment blocks and shops. These numbers are official figures and don’t include CCTV cameras in apartment blocks, parks, shops and restaurant kitchens. More than one lakh CCTV cameras are expected to be installed in Hyderabad, a city with a population of more than 68 lakh. Other Indian metropolises are on a similar path as the prices of CCTV cameras and storage devices have plummeted, and the State’s greed for information has soared.

Add advanced technology to this mix and the situation turns scary. Hyderabad and Bengaluru are experimenting with Face Recognition Technology in their airports. Some passengers enrolled voluntarily during the trial period of this technology in Hyderabad in July. The Face Recognition Technology allows passengers to walk in without any documents and pass through multiple checks with their face as the only identifier.

At a time when sharing personal details online, including surveillance material, is fraught with the risk of privacy breaches, India is rushing pell-mell into a data-gathering wonderland.

Stronger data protection laws

A few years ago, Google policy wonk Eric Schmidt had said, “High tech runs three times faster than normal businesses. And the government runs three times slower than normal businesses. So, we have a nine times gap... And so what you want to do is to make sure that the government doesn’t get in the way and slow things down.”

Some data mavens have mapped out the legal boundaries of the Internet so far as information security is concerned. “The online world is not truly bound by terrestrial laws... it’s the world’s largest ungoverned space,” wrote Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen about digital governance in 2013.

Unless data protection laws catch up quickly with the reality of a pan-India network of CCTVs, we will continue to live in a surveillance state without knowing where this data is going and for what purpose it is being used.

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2022 4:24:30 pm |