CCTVs in Delhi: Cause for concern or celebration? #SaveOurPrivacy

We wrote to the Government of Delhi to highlight our concerns and highlight the need for a legal review & audit of their CCTV project.

09 September, 2021
6 min read


On August 26, 2021, a Forbes India report claimed Delhi to be the most surveilled city in the world. Worried about the possible privacy and welfare concerns of such a project, we wrote to the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal and the PWD Minister, Satyender Jain.

Delhi: Most surveilled city in the world

According to a report titled, “Delhi, Chennai among most surveilled in the world, ahead of Chinese cities”, published on the Forbes India website on August 26, 2021, Delhi is the most surveilled city in the world with 1,826.6 cameras per square mile. Now, while we were concerned after seeing this report, the Government of Delhi on the other hand seemed to take it as an achievement.

However, it is not the only Indian city on this worrisome list. In addition to Delhi, Chennai (3rd) and Mumbai (18th) also make the list. Such statistics place India closer to authoritarian states like China, which has a state sponsored mass surveillance system in place. According to a 2018 BBC news report, “(a)n estimated 170 million CCTV cameras are already in place (in China) and some 400 million new ones are expected (to) be installed in the next three years.” Thus, one wonders if the Delhi Government’s use of this statistic as a measure of accomplishment signals a worrying trend of Indian government officials sliding towards authoritarianism especially since similar claims of accomplishment have been made by other state governments such as Telangana. The reason behind the mass installation of CCTV cameras in Delhi has been premised on public safety as there is little doubt that there is a high incidence of violent crime focussed towards women and children. However, does such surveillance actually lead to a reduction in crime and make Delhi safer for women?

CCTVs ≠ Reduction in crime

The answer is no. Here it is important to highlight the false equivalency between surveillance and safety. The metric to be measured is not the CCTV as a physical artefact, but it’s impact in reducing crime. Multiple studies, through the years, have proven that CCTV surveillance has little to no effect on reduction of crime in the surveilled area. According to the Campbell Collaboration Report on 'Effects of Closed Circuit Television Surveillance on Crime' by Welsh & Farrington, CCTV schemes “did not have a significant effect on crime”. Further, according to another study titled ‘The Cambridge evaluation of the effects of CCTV on crime’, “CCTV had no effect on crime according to survey data, and an undesirable effect on crime according to police records”. While similar Indian studies and audits on the effect of CCTV on crime are lacking, this correlation can also be proven if we take a look at two relevant variables in Delhi itself.

While anecdotal instances of women being harassed, assaulted and generally feeling unsafe in Delhi are many, a look at the official data from the Delhi Police allows us to make an accurate judgment. The present CCTV initiative of the Delhi Govt. was launched on June 3, 2019 wherein they had committed to installing 1.4 lakh CCTV cameras in Delhi, with another 1.3 lakh cameras being installed in 2020-21. The expenditure incurred on this deployment by the Delhi Govt. is INR 264 crore till March 2021 with the total allotment for CCTV deployment being INR 1,184.73 crore. However, if we compare data released by the Delhi Police on crime against women between January to August in 2020 and 2021, crime against women has risen exponentially in 2021. In 2020, within the first 8 months there were 5,095 cases of crime against women, however within the same time period in 2021, the number of cases listed by the Delhi Police is 8,106. These statistics also highlight how public funds are being mishandled especially when the public health infrastructure in the city failed miserably early this year.

On the contrary, in addition to being unable to increase women’s safety, these CCTV cameras contribute to serious right to privacy violations for women in Delhi. The CCTV feeds can be accessed by Resident Welfare Associations, Market Associations, local police and the Public Works Department as per a non-legal Standard Operating Procedure. There is no legal basis or safeguards in place to regulate the deployment nor is there a personal data protection law in place to regulate how the data which is collected through these cameras is stored, processed and shared further. The one page standard operating procedure (SOP) issued by the Public Works Department of the Delhi Government on August 27, 2018 is untethered to any policy or legal framework. This SOP, permits installation of CCTVs and feeds to be made available to RWA representatives, Market Associations, the Public Works Department and the Local Police. They are provided passwords after approval from the local MLA to login and access the feeds. However, many questions arise as it does not contain any data protection principles or security practices.

Such constant surveillance harms the right to privacy as well as results in modification of behaviour which leads to a chilling effect on the other rights contingent upon privacy such as freedom of speech & expression, freedom of association and the right to protest. We are concerned that such surveillance and access to the footage being given to RWAs will result in RWA representatives policing the travel, work and social lives of female residents. This can be seen as per a study titled ‘Gendering Surveillance’ by Nayantara Ranganathan from the Internet Democracy Project, female garment workers in the textile industry in Bengaluru revealed that CCTVs footage had not helped in even a single case of sexual harassment. On the contrary such footage was used to identify “troublemakers” to prevent female workers from organising and demanding labour protections and better working conditions.

By capturing and storing facial data, use of CCTVs is highly intrusive, facilitates real-time surveillance and goes against the decision of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India 2017 SCC 1. Broadly, the standard of "reasonable expectation of privacy" discussed in the decision is not exclusionary and links to autonomy, liberty and dignity that are components of fundamental rights. The decision notes this at several places and it was the larger consensus between the 9 judge bench, and the reading of the judgement between the lawyers who appeared in the case.

"While the legitimate expectation of privacy may vary from intimate zone to the private zone and from the private to the public arena, it is important to underscore that privacy is not lost or surrendered merely because the individual is in a public place." (J. Chandrachud within his ratio at para 3(f) in conclusions)
"The entitlement to such a condition is not confined only to intimate spaces such as the bedroom or the washroom but goes with a person wherever he is, even in a public place." (J. Bobde at para 22)

Our actions

We have written to the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal and the Delhi PWD Minister, Satyender Jain, highlighting the false equivalency between surveillance and reduction in crime. In our representation, we have also made the following recommendations:

  1. A transparent public consultation on the scope of the CCTV project that is inclusive of women's groups, technologists, digital rights organisations and individuals from the civil society sector;
  2. Regular audits and feasibility studies on aspects of technical, financial, privacy and security of the CCTV project ideally at 6 month intervals. All such data and analysis including the audit reports should be made transparently available to the public.
  3. Seek legal opinion for a substantive legislative/regulatory framework for CCTV deployment that ideally replaces the existing  Standard Operating Procedure. At the same point in time, release a white paper inviting privacy and data protection experts to provide inputs on the proper framework for an anchoring legislation.

Unregulated use of CCTVs is open to gross misuse, especially since deployment may unfairly affect marginalised communities that may end up being over-policed and may result in having a chilling effect on the ability of citizens to live their lives without interference and thus go against the Puttaswamy decision which held that, “privacy is not lost or surrendered merely because the individual is in a public place. Privacy attaches to the person since it is an essential facet of the dignity of the human being”. IFF will continue to raise its voice against the proliferation of such surveillance systems.

Important Documents

  1. Letter to Delhi Govt. on CCTV Project dated September 7, 2021 (link)

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