AAP's ambitious CCTV project puts Delhi citizens' privacy at risk, warring state agencies must come together to safeguard public data
The SOPs are not clearly laid down for collection and monitoring such huge data on public movement and activity through a mesh of CCTVs
A circular prison campus with cells all around its periphery, and a tall tower at its heart; a one-way mirror separates the two at every inch. The prisoners can't see who the gunman is pointing at, yet the permanence of the feeling of being watched shall keep them in check. This was the panopticon gaze, a prison cell design created by English social reformer and jurist Jeremy Bentham to maximise the efficacy of a disciplinary institution using the power of surveillance. Long after his death, French social theorist and historian of ideas Michel Foucault analysed and highlighted the pervasiveness and obscurity the panopticon inserts into the broader dynamic of discipline and punishment.
Foucault wrote that the structure of the panopticon was coercive and subjugated the prisoners merely through its own existence because the structure is designed in a way that it utilises the mechanism of invisible power. It would be brazen reductionism to draw up an analogy between panopticon prisons and the cities of today where close circuit cameras are tied to nooks and corners and perched atop poles in marketplaces. However, it is who sits in that tower collecting hours and hours of data on public movement is a question that a democratically elected government needs to answer. A module that is imposed on the public to ensure 'transparency', cannot be left ambiguous and opaque at the other end.
Taking the case of New Delhi, the split between the Aam Aadmi Party-led government and the police forces controlled by the Luetinent Governor is a visible one. Three days ago, addressing a huge gathering of representatives of Resident Welfare Associations (RWA), market associations, and non-profit groups at Indira Gandhi Stadium, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tore up a report by a panel set up by Lt Governor Anil Baijal to work out the guidelines for installation and monitoring of surveillance cameras.
"For last three years, we have been trying to get CCTVs installed in the city. We also initiated the files, but the L-G, other officers and BJP did not let us work," the chief minister alleged. As of today, the existing CCTV networks fall under the purview of various public and private authorities such as the Delhi Police, Delhi Metro, the three municipal corporations and other commercial establishments. For instance, in markets like Palika Bazar, the CCTV footage is monitored by market associations and in RWAs, MLALAD fund is used to monitor the data.
However, the Standard Operating Procedures are not clearly laid down for collection and monitoring of such huge data on public movement and activity.
Days after the Supreme Court’s judgement in the tussle between AAP and the L-G's office, a committee formed by Baijal recommended that the Delhi Police will be the custodian of the CCTV cameras installed in public areas in the national capital. This would include the new CCTV cameras that shall be installed by the AAP government. The Delhi Rules for Regulation of CCTV Systems in NCT of Delhi, 2018 made by a committee appointed by the L-G acknowledge the need 'to strike a balance between the right to privacy and right to life and property by regulation of the processing, obtaining, holding, use or disclosure of information obtained through CCTVs by the civic bodies and individuals.
The rules state that 'public space' means any space which the general public has access to and which has been notified by the appropriate authority. It also states that 'appropriate authority' would refer to the Deputy Commissioner of Police (Licensing), Delhi Police. One of the contentions behind tearing up the report was that the AAP government doesn't want to give license charge to the police and says that the control should rest with the market associations and RWAs.
But there is another problem here.
In the New Delhi constituency, portable cabins are being installed in government colonies in Sarojini Nagar, Mandir Marg and Gol Market where the RWAs will supervise the exercise. Watching over the footage are most likely security guards who are attached to private agencies. In the Delhi Secretariat, PWD is in-charge of watching over the footage. The standard operating framework must bind all agencies in control of public data and ensure they are trained to operate machines. The AAP-led government has an ambitious plan to cover the capital in a complex mesh of lenses.
Here's what AAP's CCTV plan entails:
The cameras shall be equipped with 4 megapixel IR with day/night vision. A localised view at each colony can be taken through a mobile app, and the cameras will be connected to servers through 4G/3G/2G/GPRS. There are going to be approximately 2,000 cameras per Assembly constituency in all the 70 constituencies of the capital. The footage will be recorded in a Network Video Recorder (NVR) at camera location for 30 days and the video storage shall be provided by the contractor to the police or the court as and when a demand for it is made. All NVR's will have a SIM card and SMS/email facility will be available to send an alarm to five designated persons: the RWA president, the secretary, the local police, the PWD engineer and the agency dealing with power failure, hard disk failure, dysfunctional cameras that aren't not recording footage, and any kind of vandalism.
This system, the government stated in a press release, has evolved from the experience of issues which the state government had received in the traditional system. The NVR box is to be placed to connect one to four cameras around a location. Power supply to UPS and NVR box will come from any of the residents nearer to the unit. Delhi government will bear the monthly electricity charges. The NVR box will store 30 days of recording at full High Definition (HD) of all cameras connected to it.
Deriving full impact from complex technologies requires training, especially because the people operating them come from diverse backgrounds. The AAP government is also seeking suggestions from civil society on the same and is expected to submit new draft rules in the coming weeks. Now, at the heart of a clash between two camps that have been continuously accusing each other of disrupting governance, is the argument that countless hours of public data can be at risk.
"The police and the state governments need to work hand-in-hand to control crime. CCTV footage is evidentiary support later but also a strong preventive mechanism, for it directs the police to the scene where violence could take place. For surveillance to be effective, live feed should reach the police and the forces should be trained in interpreting and operating cameras and juggling a couple of hundred screens and a whole lot of technicalities," said SBS Tyagi, former DCP, Crime Branch, Delhi.
Udayaditya Banerjee, who assisted Shyam Divan, a senior advocate in the Aadhaar matter, told Firstpost that CCTVs in a public place won't interfere with the right to privacy since the purpose is public security on a constitutional premise. Last August, the Supreme Court declared Right to Privacy a Fundamental Right. The Puttaswamy judgement cited the case of Malak Singh vs State of Punjab and Haryana that dealt with the provisions of Section 23 of the Punjab Police Rules under which a surveillance register was to be maintained. Justice O Chinnappa Reddy recognized the need for surveillance on habitual and potential offenders. The court did not consider it unlawful for the police to conduct surveillance so long as it was for the purpose of preventing crime and was confined to the limits prescribed by Rule 23.7 of the Punjab Police Rules which prescribes the mode of surveillance permits a close watch over movements of the person under surveillance but without any illegal interference. In the right to privacy judgement, the Supreme Court stated that the legitimate aims of the state would include protecting national security, preventing and investigating crime.
On principle, CCTVs are installed for the public good. But a whole host of complications must be factored in. Jayna Kothari, lawyer and founder of Centre for Internet and Society stresses on the lack of a law for monitoring footage. "If we don’t know who is in control of the footage, then there’s a big problem. What if the video footage is tempered with? Who will be held liable?" she asked. "If the footage is casually cut from anywhere and handed over to the police, then on what basis can the suspect in the video challenge its authenticity?"
CCTV footage is admissible evidence. The court gives importance to electronic evidence, for instance, in case of the attack on Parliament in 2001. It's a procedural law under section 65B of the Evidences Act that states that electronic records need to be certified by a person occupying a responsible official position for being admissible as evidence in any court proceedings. "The problem is that of reliability. After electronic evidence is picked up, a chain of custody has to be seen to ensure it isn't tampered with. For instance, if a CCTV camera shows random strangers talking to each other without an audio, a parallel construction can take place," explained Dibyanshu Pandey, a lawyer practising in the Supreme Court.
Pavan Duggal, an advocate who specializes in the field of Cyberlaw and E-Commerce law, told Firstpost that the prime problem with the mushrooming of CCTVs is the lack of a regulatory framework. "There's only one mother legislation for the electronic format, the IT Act 2000 which was amended in 2008 and CCTV were not brought in specifically," he said, adding that a detailed legal framework for governing the output of CCTV cameras must be put in place, which should detail where the footage is being stored and how the security of the output is being preserved.
Cameras put up by private entities may capture the private lives of others. But, Duggal highlights two important issues: the first is that CCTV cameras are highly unsecured and breaching footage is easy. Second is that a lot of CCTV cameras flooding the Indian market are Chinese so a lot of data output could land in China. If not monitored correctly, data from CCTVs can turn into ammunition in hands of state and non-state actors. In May 2018, Delhi Congress chief Ajay Maken had accused the AAP government of compromising national security by engaging a Chinese company in its mammoth CCTV project to which AAP had responded by saying that the project was outsourced to Bharat Electronics Limited which in turn roped in a Chinese vendor.
The installation of about 1.5 lakh CCTV cameras across the city was one of the AAP's poll-promise. A nuanced framework needs to be put in place in order to insert deterrence into the collective psyche, and a pre-requisite to that is a relationship of trust and accord between agencies of the state.
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