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In 1942, German scientist Walter Baruch devised closed circuit television (CCTV) camera to monitor rocket launches remotely. It eventually became part of monitoring every rocket launch programme. Baruch wouldn’t have imagined that someday this technology would transform into a widely prevalent surveillance device all around the globe.
In times of late-modernity, CCTV technology has extended into a vast Orwellian mechanism with complicated surveillance tools, such as facial recognition technology (FRT), advanced drone system (ADS), data mining and profiling, social media monitoring and so on.
Though the CCTV surveillance system is rather antiquated, it is important to delve deeper into the camera surveillance technology, for it is being used widely around the globe, and more importantly in India.
In May 2021, Comparitech published a report on the use of CCTV cameras in 150 major cities across the globe. They found around 770 million cameras globally, and of which, 54% of them were reported to be in China alone.
China has the maximum number of surveilled cities compared to any other nation globally. Though surveillance is commonplace in China, several Indian cities have also earned the dubious distinction of appearing on the list of most surveilled cities across the globe.
Figure 1: Geographical Map spotting CCTV Cameras in India
The rising number of CCTV cameras in India is a cause of grave concern. Figure 1 shows that around 1.54 million cameras are spread among India's top 15 cities. New Delhi (5,51,500), Hyderabad (3,75,000), Chennai (2,80,000), and Indore (2,00,600) have the most surveillance cameras in the country. It is worth noting that almost 91.1% of CCTV cameras installed in the country are present only in these four cities.
Figure 1 also shows that most of the towns with surveillance cameras have an average population of three million to seven million, and all their everyday lives are under constant surveillance. The concern is genuine because, as the Comparitech data shows, Indore ranks fourth with 64.43 cameras per thousand people, Hyderabad ranks 12th (36.52), and New Delhi secured 16th rank (33.73) in the list of 20 cities on a global scale.
However, ironically, this grave issue of rising surveillance in India has become a reason for jubilation for some.
In August 2021, citing an infographic by Forbes India, the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, tweeted, "Feel proud to say that Delhi beats cities like Shanghai, NY n London with most CCTV cameras per sq mile."
The infographic was based on a report of Comparitech that spoke about the top 20 cities globally in terms of surveillance cameras per square mile. The data shows that New Delhi ranks first with 1,826.58 cameras per square mile, Chennai stood third rank (609.9 cameras), Mumbai at 18th rank (157.4 cameras). It is surprising that democratically-elected politicians should encourage such measures.
It is clear from Figure 2 that the cities with a high rate of surveillance do not necessarily have lower crime indices.
Cities like New Delhi (59.54), Indore (49.88), Hyderabad (43.78) and Chennai (40.87), which are also incidentally the focal spots of CCTV surveillance in the country, rank high on the crime index too. On the other hand, cities like Bangalore (54.42), Kolkata (47.55) and Kochi (41.12) that have relatively fewer cameras than the other urban agglomerations have lower crime indices.
Therefore, the proposition that more cameras lead to reduced crime rates falls flat on its face.
CCTVs impact on crime rate
In January 2020, Surfshark published in its data report that the increased number of cameras does not correlate with the crime index across the globe.
In a study by the California Research Bureau (CRB) on the study of video surveillance and biometric technologies of US law enforcement agencies in both the private and public realm, it has been found that despite the increasing use of CCTV surveillance, there is limited evidence to prove that crimes have reduced due to the use of CCTV cameras in our society.
On the other hand, digital rights activist Cory Doctorow refuted altogether that CCTV manages to prevent street crimes or riots in the community. Instead, governments promise to their people that CCTV would prevent crimes from taking place under the guise of fulfilling the purposes of surveillance in general life.
A study published by Arizona State University has evaluated the effects of CCTV in Cambridge city and showed that there are no possible effects on crime due to the prevalence of CCTVs in the city and vice versa.
Then the question occurs if the surveillance cameras fail to prevent crime in public, then how do governments convince the people of their benefits?
In her 2011 essay, 'Anti-surveillance activists vs. the dancing heads of terrorism', scholar Laura Huey explains that essentially the "actors that are pro-surveillance in the public sphere pursue their targeted audience by actively promoting powerful imagery that taps into the public imagination, while institutions carefully frame issues such as national security, signal crimes, and public safety to install robust surveillance cameras in public spaces".
For instance, in the case of Delhi, where women's safety still remains a major problem, a high number of surveillance cameras was supposed to stop such crimes significantly with the chief minister of Delhi even lauding such a measure. However, that was not to be.
Similarly, in December 2021, a proposal was made by the senior officials in Kashmir to install multiple high-resolution cameras and FRT to strengthen the security grid and curb militancy in the Valley. However, a report published in June 2015 explained that the Indian surveillance system, which includes CCTVs and phone monitoring, had already been disrupting the lives of Kashmiris for a long time.
What explains surveillance?
What could be the possible motives of governments to go in for robust CCTV surveillance?
The scholar Clive Norris explains that although governments convince people that CCTV cameras are installed to deter crime, they largely fail to prevent crime in society. Norris says, "CCTV surveillance is an instrument of policing, and it is not meant for crime prevention and detection." He further argues that it is being used disproportionately to target minority populations and "otherise" specific communities and individuals.
During the protests against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Delhi Police and Uttar Pradesh Police widely used the FRT system to crack down on protestors. It was reported that the purpose and the use of CCTV cameras and advanced surveillance systems, such as FRT, were meant to target Muslim communities in Delhi.
The annual reports of the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD), which is primarily responsible for generating data on police organisations in India, show that the number of cameras that cops use has drastically risen from 2017-18 onwards. It's clear from Figure 3 that in 2013-14, the total number of cameras was 18,000, and in 2019-20, it reached 4,60,000.
Significantly, BPRD records show that Telangana Police has more than half of the total number of surveillance cameras installed by various states' police units in India. The latest 2019-20 reports show Telangana state police has 2,82,000 surveillance cameras, accounting for 61% of police CCTV cameras in India.
Now, the question is whether the Telangana Police, with such heavy surveillance, has been able to strengthen deterrence against crime in the state?
According to a report by The News Minute, Telangana’s state capital, Hyderabad, has virtually transformed into a surveillance city with the police routinely resorting to extra-judicial methods, such as confiscating phones of anyone they deem suspicious and checking their WhatsApp chats apparently to bust contraband networks. The state police have often been engaging in profiling people at whim by randomly taking fingerprints, Aadhaar numbers and other sensitive information and feeding them into Central Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS). Such police excesses and ‘cordon-and-search’ raids have been taking place in Hyderabad in guise of maintaining law and order.
In November 2021, Amnesty International, as part of its ‘Ban the Scan’ campaign, warned that the "brutal surveillance apparatus in Hyderabad is jeopardising the human rights scenario with unwarranted use of FRT that can exacerbate discriminatory policing against marginalised communities and political opposition".
According to a report of the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), around 76 firms, out of a random sample size of 100 private companies, produce and sell surveillance-based technologies in India, consisting of phone monitoring software, GPS Tracking systems, access control systems, CCTV cameras, biometrics. Of the 76 firms, 32 firms sell CCTV cameras, explaining the widespread popularity of the product.
In June 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW), in its report, criticised the then Union government, led by the Congress party, for legislating Central Monitoring System (CMS) that enabled the government to monitor all phones and internet communications across India.
HRW mentioned that "the existing legal framework like Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008 and Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 provides the security agencies extraordinary powers to infringe the privacy rights and freedom of expression of the general public".
It further said, "According to United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms designated for the purpose, the Indian state needs to set out principles to concretise privacy laws and transparency rights and it also needs to scrutinise such laws that gives authoritative powers to the institutional agencies."
As for the current government, under the BJP, it emerged in July 2021 that Pegasus spyware was used against political opponents and activists, critical of the government of the day. There are allegations that the BJP used this spyware, developed by Israeli cyber firm NSO, to covertly plant incriminating documents in computers and phones used by activists, who were later framed for treason.
These modern day advanced surveillance technologies are frightening, to say the least, and CCTV cameras are but one among many surveillance devices used to conduct large-scale monitoring of people with their own democratic consent.
Howsoever, the use of surveillance technologies in India has been growing at an alarming rate and there are fears that in the days to come, they will have negative consequences for the country. One can observe that the abilities of surveillance have gone beyond the dystopic vision that has been termed as ‘Surveillant Assemblage.’
"It simply operates by abstracting human bodies from their territorial settings and converting them into discreet data flows. The larger part of surveillance is directed towards human body that transcends human identity and treats flesh as pure information and data."
This is the most terrifying scenario where the increasing number of surveillance tools have metamorphosed human identities into data structures.
Jayant Pankaj is a Hyderabad-based independent freelance researcher who has worked on increasing electronic surveillance across the world during his Master’s programme at the University of Hyderabad.