CHENNAI: Statistics recently compiled by the Chennai City Police estimate that a whopping 26,630 public places in the city have installed CCTV cameras. The police have set a target of increasing this to 33,835 spots and have been aggressively pushing for CCTV in all public places as a crime prevention and detection tool.
In some cases, CCTV recordings have helped in identifying suspects but are all Chennaiites OK with the innocuous parts of their everyday life getting digitally recorded?
The dangers that CCTV can pose to personal privacy were first brought to the fore in 2012 when footage of a couple sharing an intimate moment on a New Delhi Metro made its way onto social media. It’s evident from the video that the couple ensured there was no one watching before exchanging a few kisses but the duo were unaware of the CCTV camera situated just above them on the compartment’s roof. Despite being maintained by the Metrorail, a quasi-government organisation, the footage was leaked. So, what about the numerous digital parts of our lives we leave behind every day in possession of unknown persons or private institutions? Or is everyone comfortable if their movements are constantly being recorded and watched by someone sitting behind a screen?
The first legislative push for CCTV in public places was made in December 2012 when the Tamil Nadu government issued an order mandating that it was compulsory for all public premises — like schools, hospitals and recreation places — to have one CCTV camera for every 300 square metres. While the police have installed cameras on arterial roads, they have also been persuading resident associations to install CCTV on the streets outside. The cameras were projected as a panacea for all crimes and easy detection of criminals.
There were a few incidents where brutal crimes were captured on CCTV but whether they actually help in convicting the criminals is yet to be scientifically proven. More significantly, the questions about who can access CCTV recordings and make it public are still unanswered.
“What happens to the videos that capture innocent people walking on the road?” asks V Suresh, a reputed lawyer and national general secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties. He says people have started relying on CCTV due to lack of trust in the police. “There is a complete lack of guidelines or protocol and it’s not clear who can view the footages,” he says. But police officers say CCTV was necessary for public safety. “We advise the apartment associations to install cameras but there have always been privacy concerns. Even so, residents need to overcome this and volunteer to install cameras giving priority to safety,” says a senior police officer with the Chennai City Police.
The question boils down to this: If CCTV is a must, then who should have access to the recordings? “For instance, during the Marina protest incidents of violence were recorded on CCTV. But the police cleverly deleted their actions. When they are installing cameras in all places, why not in police stations to prevent custodial tortures?” says Henri Tiphagne, an activist and founder of People’s Watch. He says privacy concerns need to be addressed. Suresh feels a balance must be created by putting protocols in place on who can access the recordings. “Someone must be made accountable for the misuse of recordings,” he says.
Is CCTV essential? Do the benefits of the mass surveillance overweigh security concerns? It’s a debate with no clear answers but it’s high time the debate happens.