Look who’s watching


As the Russia-Ukraine war wages on, Ukraine has decided to use controversial facial recognition technology (FRT) to identify dead Russian soldiers and inform their families and friends of the deceased. War and national security often justify the use of controversial surveillance technology, which is often rightfully criticised during peacetime.

Closer home, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal talks about the city beating Shanghai, New York, and London with the most number of closed-circuit TV cameras per square mile.

His claim is based on this Comparitech report detailing CCTV presence in different parts of the world. The report found that Delhi, with 1,826 cameras per square mile, is the most surveilled city in the world, followed by London (1,138) and Chennai (609). Beating the next few Chinese cities in that metric.

The justification that governments make for installing CCTVs is that cameras will deter people from breaking the law and will help aid investigators when needed. That argument, however, has been debunked several times. Report after report claims these cameras play no role in deterring crime. Yes, you can always say, it doesn’t hurt anyone, does it? But this claim may not hold.

For instance, is there a statute of limitations that suggests how long a video can be saved? What happens to the videos taken of people who aren’t violating the law? Can the videos be sold to private companies? This is worrying, especially in a country that has no laws governing the use of CCTV cameras, the footage they capture, and their possible usage.

The proposed data protection bill, which is yet to be passed into law, deals with surveillance as a generic principle, without going into specifics of on-camera surveillance. There is also the Information Technology Act and the overarching right to privacy that can be invoked under the Indian legal system, but neither deals with CCTV as a specific issue. We can’t argue that like AI, the technology is still evolving and lawmakers need time to process it. For reference, the first CCTV camera was installed in Germany during the second world war.

The United Kingdom has a clear set of rules for camera surveillance, first introduced in 2013 and updated last year. In no unclear terms, these rules ensure that the use of cameras is for public protection and support and not spying. In the US, CCTV surveillance laws vary from state to state.

Not just cameras

As the technology matures, both camera companies and governments are increasingly adding features such as facial recognition to the mix. Governments in Delhi, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, the Railways Ministry, all use FRT one way or another. Then there is also the Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS).

China’s use of CCTVs and FRT certainly gives you an idea of the kind of programmes a central authority can build on a facial database of all its citizens.

Very recently, the Delhi and Uttar Pradesh governments were reported to have used FRT to recognise protestors at the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act protests. While Delhi Police itself admitted that it had purchased the facial recognition software to trace missing children, the prime reason for using FRT in UP was women’s safety. Both clearly breached those mandates.

Similarly, Haryana Police also used drones to keep a check on farmers’ protests last year. Many state governments have used drone cameras to keep an eye on political rallies. If these images are run through an artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition system tomorrow to, let’s say, segregate people of a specific community, there is little that an ordinary citizen could do about it.

This is why laws and boundaries are important.

Growing up in the glare of a camera

And what would the implications of this be if we think about schools? In New Delhi, cameras are being installed in government schools. The argument has been that this will keep teachers motivated and let parents know what their children are doing during class.

Digital rights organisations have filed Right to Information requests with the Delhi Government, which confirmed the use of FRT in conjunction with CCTVs in government-run schools. In one such response, the Central Board of Secondary Education, which is also using facial matching for providing digital marksheets, dismissed the need for having a privacy policy. Again, there is no information on who handles these videos, where they’re stored, and if at all they’re deleted. Can you imagine the videos of our children being sold to large companies?

The lack of regulatory oversight apart, there needs to be a separate set of rules while deploying invasive technology that can potentially track minors. As other states consider similar deployments, there is a need to evolve a framework that protects individual privacy. There is also a need to lay out clear guidelines on where this video footage is stored, for how long, and which authority has the ownership.

There should also be more transparency on the source of the hardware — the CCTVs themselves. There is little we know about the providers, but one report said Chinese company Hikvision — which is 41% Chinese government-owned and has also been linked to the Chinese military — was the one supplying cameras to the Delhi government, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, and even Bharat Electronics. 

The other two big names in the CCTV market in India are CP Plus and another Chinese firm called Dahua that has been banned from US federal contracts over its poor human rights record. While some reports suggest India has banned Dahua CCTVs for government procurement, both Hikvision and Dahua continue to sell here through local partners.

In 2022, we are far ahead of the argument that privacy is a rich man’s construct. It is a fundamental right of the Indian people under its Constitution. The harms of institutional, personal, criminal, and discriminatory targeted abuse of CCTV footage are concerns that have been documented as far back as two decades.

We have a long way to go before the possibility of these harms is adequately addressed. Let’s hope governments wake up before it is too late.


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