A brainchild of Surat's police commissioner, Rakesh Asthana, who claims to have been inspired by London’s Scotland Yard, this surveillance system is meant to be a security shield against crime and acts of terror.
But evidence from other cities suggests that such surveillance may not deliver all that it is meant to while posing a considerable threat to privacy and civil liberties, especially because India does not have legal and regulatory frameworks governing such activity.
Begun in 2012, the project involves installing 5,000 CCTVs across the city and a 280-square-foot video screen, one of the country's largest, in the police control room. In the first phase, completed on June 11, 104 cameras went up at 23 locations.
Last year, businessmen and jewellers in the diamond hub responded enthusiastically when city authorities requested them to fund the project, no doubt in the expectation that it would bring down the city’s crime rate and deter terror attacks.
Ever since bomb blasts ripped through Ahmedabad in 2008, the Gujarat police had been considering setting up such a system not only in that city but also in Gandhinagar, Rajkot, Surat and Vadodara. Their proposal gathered momentum after unprecedented terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and it got a further boost after a bomb blast hit the Delhi High Court in 2011. As in Surat, the plan for Ahmedabad also involved raising funds from citizens through the Ahmedabad Citizens Security Trust.
While nobody can deny the threat of terror attacks and the paramount importance of providing security to Indian cities and their populations, this spurt in government surveillance calls for closer scrutiny.
Especially after bomb blasts hit London in 2005, many governments began to believe that wall-to-wall surveillance would help pre-empt terror attacks and bring down crime. But evidence from Britain, which has the most CCTV cameras per person of any country in the world, and from other cities, has shown that this might not be the case.
In Britain, people are said to be caught on camera as many as 300 times a day. But the number of crimes captured on cameras dropped significantly in 2010. Potential offenders either dodge the cameras or carry out their acts in full view of them, which weakens the justification that surveillance deters crime. Moreover, prosecutors contend that evidence obtained from the recordings are of negligible value in securing convictions.
A 2008 study in San Francisco showed that CCTV cameras have only a placebo effect, while in Los Angeles, the results were more problematic. Not only was there no evidence that the cameras deterred crime, but the fact that the programme was financed mostly by private citizens led to the possibility of the recordings being misused, such as to settle personal scores.
Indeed, CCTV cameras failed to prevent both the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 and the bombings in Boston in 2013. In the case of Boston, the release to the public of the recordings caused people to speculate wildly about innocent bystanders .
Potential misuse poses a serious problem, especially in India because it has no statutory or institutional oversight of such surveillance. While the state acquires more powers over its subjects through surveillance, private individuals are often bankrolling such systems. We are told that only senior police officials will have access to the recordings, but we cannot rule out misuse by the police themselves.
Even more worrying is the threat that surveillance poses to privacy and civil liberties. In 2001, criminologist David Garland argued against what he called the “schizophrenic crime control complex” in which “crime consciousness”, that is, a perception or apprehension, not always based on facts, about crimes, had become institutionalised. This led to a boom in the sales of private security equipment, especially surveillance technologies.
Experience in other countries has shown that certain methods of surveillance can lead to targeting specific communities. The Domain Awareness System, a scheme that the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg launched in 2012, for instance, came in for much criticism and even legal action from civil liberties defenders because it was targeting areas and social groups.
In India, which lacks laws or institutional mechanisms to protect a citizen’s privacy, public debate must precede any expansion of state surveillance.
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