There is a mistaken notion that there is no right to privacy in the public domain
Representative image. Credit: iStockPhoto
Earlier this year, Hyderabad found itself ranked among the top 20 cities in the world with the most intense surveillance in public spaces. Hyderabad police installed three lakh surveillance cameras, an average of 30 for every 1000 citizens, in the last six years. Now the state has decided to upgrade their number to a million (10 lakh). Also, new apartments are not being sanctioned unless they install surveillance cameras. All these measures have serious consequences to the right to privacy in public places.
Surveillance cameras, when they were first introduced, were intended to monitor real-time vehicular traffic. After their integration into the control and command centre through the internet, these public eyes were supposed to help in solving criminal cases and monitor religious processions.
Hyderabad recorded 17.8 per cent fewer crimes in five years and this is credited to the installation of CCTVs. However, evidence is necessary to validate these claims. While the offences such as public cheating, chain snatching and murders have reduced in number, crimes against women and rapes have increased substantially in 2019.
National crime data shows a similar mixed trend in crimes in Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai though no comparable surveillance mechanism exists. Even in Britain, where these measures originated first (unsurprisingly, London too is in the top 20 cities list) no correlation between crime patterns and proliferation of cameras exists. Yet their explosion goes on unchecked.
Impact of technology-led surveillance
Surveillance cameras began as a temporary security measure in Olympics cities and later became permanent. Digital technology has revolutionised their capabilities and created new means of coordinating surveillance. It has simplified the processing and storing of images and enabled their wide sharing. Machines can read and morph these images easily. Therefore, describing these devices as CCTVs today is misleading – they are neither ‘closed circuit’ nor are they ‘televisions’
The cameras and the images they capture may be innocuous in their individual contexts but when they coalesce with other measures of data-mining and image alteration, they are much more potent than in their original conception.
As their deployment multiplies in malls, apartments, offices and streets, the purposes they are used for also increases. Though the rationale of preventing ‘street crime’ and ‘safe shopping’ linger to legitimise their use, the cameras have emerged as an important means of gathering and processing the data for both governments and markets.
Anxieties with an increasing crime have been used to legitimise these technologies. While well-publicized violent incidents in Britain served as ‘trigger events’ to introduce them, the media here justifies their existence even when they help to capture petty thieves. Concerns about ‘missing children’ are often invoked to install more cameras, but there is no adequate evidence to show they help in finding them. The public psyche is fed with the isolated success stories of capturing an offender. Studies elsewhere show that the police systematically use their clout with the government to push for the use of these surveillance measures.
What about consent?
The signage about the existence of surveillance cameras are supposed to be a means of obtaining citizens’ consent for their use. On the grounds of privacy and legality, one has to ask a number of questions. For instance, can citizens trust these devices with their privacy? Does this signage inform them of their purpose, data storage and third-party access to footage? Are citizens sure that governments are not using techniques for private and political purposes?
There is a mistaken notion that there is no right to privacy in the public domain. The right to privacy includes the right to autonomy and anonymity. This is what constitutes privacy in public life. The camera makes the privacy in public places insecure. This constitutes illegal search of a person without informing them. This important right is rendered non-existent by these open place devices.
When the police circulate the footage of surveillance cameras through the mass media, it facilitates many to watch the selected few. But we hardly differentiate between these two modes. This also calls into question the ethics of mass media drawing its content selectively from surveillance cameras.
On the grounds of privacy, the citizens of Canada have resisted these measures and rejected the standard rationale of fighting crime as baseless. China has been using these devices to monitor and suppress political dissent among Uyghur Muslims and Tibetans. Turkey installed them in advance to record political demonstrations by the Kurds. In Hyderabad, police now record political demonstrations openly. Surveillance is no longer sneaky now but Orwellian.
Scholars across the world feel that these devices are emerging as the latest, dominant means of social ordering in globalised economies. Perhaps we are witnessing the unfolding of a complex techno-political process in the proliferation of surveillance devices.
(Dr Murali Karnam, teaches at the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. The views expressed are personal)