Rise of CCTV in Digital India isn't making us more secure; policing and surveillance reforms are need of the hour

  • The CCTV footage from the Jamia Millia Islamia library is slowly helping us piece together just what happened on the night of 15 December last year

  • Violence by the police is not new to Indians, but the challenge has always been holding the relevant personnel accountable for their actions

  • The only way to hold the State accountable is to demand transparency. Without transparency, there is no hope for accountability

The CCTV footage from the Jamia Millia Islamia library is slowly helping us piece together just what happened on the night of 15 December last year. The manner in which the police has conducted itself, as an institution, during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests across the country should ideally lead to inquiries and the subsequent suspension of officials responsible. The seemingly arbitrary implementation of Section 144, denial of permission to hold protests, lack of police name-tags, masking of faces, being out of uniform and breaking of CCTV cameras are all now becoming a regular practice.

Violence by the police is not new to Indians, but the challenge has always been holding the relevant personnel accountable for their actions. Whether illegal encounters or petty corruption, proving the act of crime by a policeman is near impossible without evidence. Even with the availability of evidence, the glacial functioning of courts in India means that the idea of justice for being a victim of State violence is a dream that never materialises. The burden of evidence being on the victim is a serious problem.

The growing implementation of CCTV across the country has so far been portrayed as a problem with the State gaining excessive powers. This is indeed true with the use of facial recognition technology and the lack of accountability on how the State uses the footage. The ongoing protests are teaching us that the police is just as afraid of the visuals captured on surveillance cameras as the citizens, particularly when we see cops breaking cameras. The police, it would appear, does not want to yield its power to a machine that could hold it accountable. With the affordability and availability of smartphones, cops seem to be resorting to a variety of means, including not wearing their name-tags, to avoid identification.

 Rise of CCTV in Digital India isnt making us more secure; policing and surveillance reforms are need of the hour

Screen grab from CCTV footage from Jamia Millia Islamia. Courtesy: Maktoob Media

The idea that CCTV ensures accountability or safety is flawed when the control of the technology lies with the police. When people advocate against the rise of CCTV, they are actually complaining about this power the police has to control things in real-time. The usage of facial recognition adds to this problem of power and accountability. With growing surveillance databases, the police is able to mobilise in real-time to ensure people don't assemble for any form of protest. The current state of affairs increasingly makes it clear that there is an information asymmetry between the police and citizens. While the police wants to know everything about the citizens, it doesn't want to cede any information about its own personnel.

The only way to hold the State accountable is to demand transparency. Without transparency, there is no hope for accountability. And the first step towards this is to start demanding access to all forms of information held by the police departments starting with CCTV footage from cameras in public spaces. This is nothing radical or new — the Election Commission allows anyone to access CCTV footage of cameras installed in polling booths and strong rooms. The commission charges Rs 50 per DVD to provide this information as per the RTI rules of 2012. There is no reason why the police should not be providing this information.

For instance, in the US, access to body camera footage was a key factor in highlighting the scale of police brutality against the African-American community during the Black Lives Matter movement.

Demanding access to CCTV footage is far from an easy exercise. At the time of writing, police departments store CCTV footage only for 30 days and are able to evade requests under the RTI Act. Stating that the required information has already been deleted or is part of legal proceedings and cannot be made public until the matter is decided by the court are two ways in which footage is kept from the public. Even in court, police personnel have been known to casually inform the judge that the CCTV cameras are not working when a demand is made for footage as part of public litigation.

With the 'Fundamental Right to Privacy' judgment, one could argue that access to CCTV footage violates the fundamental rights of others. This is a valid concern, but then the demand should be to shut down all CCTV cameras installed by the police. The police cannot make different arguments saying privacy cannot be provided in public spaces and at the same time, reject requests for this information under RTI. The confusion about transparency and privacy is that privacy belongs to individuals, while transparency is for the State. The State can't deny information with imaginary threats of national security and privacy, when it collects this information in a manner that isn't always lawful.

These are important issues for our society and they can only be solved with policing and surveillance reforms. But to even demand them, we really need to document the capacity of the State and how it is avoiding accountability. The State and police are weaponising public infrastructure against citizens — by shutting down the internet and even post offices in Kashmir, the State has found ways to ensure citizens toe the line. This issue of who controls the infrastructure is becoming a problem and cannot be allowed to be extended to CCTV.

The author is an independent researcher working on data, governance and the internet

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Updated Date: Feb 18, 2020 08:00:38 IST