Common Cause, an advocacy group, has released their 2023 Status of Policing in India Report (“2023 Report”), the first of its kind that surveys public opinions on digital surveillance in India. This post looks into some of their noteworthy findings on the prevalence, usage, and perceptions on CCTV cameras in urban spaces in India.
Why should you care?
On August 26, 2021, Forbes India released a report claiming that Delhi was the most highly surveilled city in the world. A 2022 report by the UK-based tech research firm Comparitech has stated that Indian cities like Indore and Hyderabad are among the most surveilled cities globally. Surveillance through CCTV coverage has often been touted as a necessary medium to reduce and monitor crime in urban spaces. However, more recent coverage of the 2021 Forbes report has pointed out that even the most surveilled cities in the country may still be among the least safe, with Hyderabad’s crime index standing at 42.9 - implying that CCTV surveillance does not necessarily affect the rate of crime in a locality. It is important to understand the perception of safety the installation of CCTV cameras provides to effectively address the threat of mass surveillance inherent under CCTV coverage - and therefore refute any misconceptions that arise.
The Status of Policing in India Report, 2023
The 2023 Report states that, “the trade-off between security and privacy is the dilemma that people face with the advent of new technology while the law is still catching up.” And indeed, in Chapter 5, the report attempts to statistically define the pervasiveness of CCTV cameras in urban spaces in India. The chapter has been divided into 7 sections, each focusing on various aspects of CCTV coverage, from the installing parties to stakeholder perceptions of the phenomenon.
Noteworthy findings include:
- 51% of respondents reported that their household or residential colony has CCTV coverage, with the highest proportion of respondents reporting CCTV coverage in residential areas from the states of Karnataka (68%), Haryana (67%), and Andhra Pradesh (65%); Maharashtra reported 33% of CCTV coverage in residential areas, the least reported.
- CCTV coverage is highest in capital cities, with 61% respondents reporting the presence of CCTV cameras in residential areas; in mid-sized and small cities, 46% of respondents reported surveillance coverage.
- CCTV coverage increases with rising income levels - high-income areas reported 73% across India, middle-income reported 63%, low-income reported 45%, and coverage in slums is just 28%.
- In all categories of urban areas (capital cities, mid-sized cities and small cities), a majority of cameras were installed by private individuals, although Delhi reported the highest proportion (54%) of government-installed CCTV cameras in residential localities.
- Those from slums or poor localities were less likely to support the installation of CCTV cameras at any of the locations—whether inside their homes, at the entry gates of their houses, or in places of their work or employment. Support for placing CCTV cameras inside the home is more in the high-income groups - 30% of the surveyed people residing in high-income localities were comfortable with cameras inside their homes, whereas only 21% from the poor-income localities said that they would want CCTV cameras inside their homes.
- In states like Kerala, Haryana, and Assam, more than 90% of respondents supported the installation of CCTV cameras in public places. People are largely in favour of the installation of CCTV cameras in public places, with respondents from Gujarat exhibiting the least amount of support at 72%.
- 25% of Hindus and Muslims agreed CCTV cameras in public places entail a risk of illegal mass surveillance, while 31% of Christians believed so. Sikhs were the least likely to believe the risk of mass surveillance, with 39% fully disagreeing with the idea.
- 21% of respondents completely agreed that there was a possibility of cameras being used against women in public spaces, with Tamil Nadu (67%), Gujarat (57%), Karnataka (54%), Maharashtra and Haryana (51% each) leading the charge; while 26% strongly disagreed with the possibility, with respondents in Assam finding it the least likely (34%). Both men and women thought alike on the subject, the survey suggests.
- Respondents were asked to what extent they believe that access to camera footage is available only to the individual or agency who installed the CCTV cameras. 38% fully believed that access to CCTV cameras footage was only available to the person who had it installed, while 30% disagreed with the statement.
- Respondents were asked if CCTV cameras help in crime reduction, investigation and making public spaces safer. 72% fully agreed that it helps in the monitoring and reduction of crimes, while 41% believe that CCTV cameras are beneficial in the investigation of crimes, and another 35% agreed that it gives a sense of security to people in public places.
- The level of education is directly proportional to the perception of cameras in the domain of law and order. 68% of respondents who had access to college education reported that cameras help in assisting the process of crime investigation. In comparison to them, only about 51% of the non-literate respondents endorsed this view.
- 52% of respondents believed it was justified for the government to use CCTV cameras to curb political movements, protests, and agitations against its policies. Only 7% were against the idea. Support for the curbing of political dissent by means of CCTV cameras is the least among religious minorities such as Sikhs and Muslims. 46% of Sikhs and 48% of Muslims justify the use of CCTV for political motives. Followers of both these religions disagree with it in equal proportion.
Harmful technologies like facial recognition technology (“FRT”) have been on the rise in the country through CCTV camera installations, most recently in Goa, with the aim of preventing and reducing both crime and more minor offences, like traffic violations. However, experts have repeatedly stated that CCTV cameras do not lead to an increase in security. Thus, creating an avenue for the introduction of FRT as an additional tool to monitor crime, through the installation of CCTV cameras, only multiplies the risk of false charges due to the inaccuracies inherent in CCTV cameras and FRT.
Despite this, the false illusion of security CCTV cameras supposedly provide has continued to take hold, represented even in the 2023 Report. The report does not state the actual effect such cameras have on the “safety” of women. However, an analysis of the crime statistics in Delhi has previously shown that crimes against women have not decreased when compared to the increase in CCTV surveillance in the same period. Schemes to establish CCTV surveillance under initiatives like the “Safe City” program by the Ministry of Home Affairs, undertaken under the Nirbhaya Fund may result in a waste of public funds as international studies have shown that CCTV cameras have little efficacy in curbing crime.
CCTV cameras have also begun to be installed by governments in other contexts of safety, with some states using these cameras as an active surveillance network. States like Haryana and Punjab are still competing to catch up in the installation of cameras, and highly-surveilled cities like Indore and Hyderabad are showcasing the intent to expand government-based surveillance. The 2023 Report therefore suggests an inclination towards surveillance in India, one that is often based on an unverifiable assumption of security. The Report also highlights the important impact CCTV surveillance has on the socio-political landscape of the country, with religious minorities and lower income groups being over-policed as a result of biased surveillance. In the absence of a data protection framework, such over-policing also increases the risk of unauthorised mass surveillance, with the collection of large amounts of data tracking the movement of any and all citizens.
It also infringes the average citizen’s fundamental Right to Privacy, established in the landmark 2017 judgement of Puttuswamy vs. Union of India. The judgement lays down a standard of "reasonable expectation of privacy" that is not exclusionary. As such, this expectation of privacy does not extinguish merely because an individual is in a public place, even if it may vary from the degree of privacy afforded in private spaces. In capturing and storing facial data, therefore, unregulated CCTV surveillance in public spaces is excessive and intrusive, and does not meet the standard of reasonable expectation of privacy discussed in the decision.
Finally, the 2023 Report discusses the use of CCTV surveillance and FRT to suppress dissent. Expert opinion on the submission of retrieved CCTV footage as evidence has stated that such surveillance can be misused for political purposes. Indeed, during protests in 2020 in Delhi, CCTV footage was used to identify protestors. The Report itself acknowledges that a large number of the respondents surveyed believe that such surveillance can and should be used to suppress political dissent, showcasing the turning tides in public perceptions on the necessity and use of CCTV cameras.
The unregulated use of CCTV allows data on the movement and activities of citizens to be subject to interference and gross misuse. As mentioned above, CCTV surveillance in public spaces can be used to identify and target protestors, leading to the suppression of collective action and political dissent. As a result, the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression - and, consequently, the right to protest - may be violated for any number of dissenters. Further, such use of targeted surveillance may have a “chilling effect” on the nature of accountability and political discourse in the country, with the larger Indian citizenry growing vary of exercising their rights to dissent due to the fear of similar backlash. Moreover, this targeted surveillance through CCTV cameras can disproportionately harm the overly-policed communities mentioned earlier, whose right to dissent may be fundamentally tied to their right to life and liberty, thus forcing greater marginalisation and impoverishment on them.
This post has been authored by Policy Intern Ishika Ray Chaudhuri and reviewed by the IFF Policy Team.
- The Status of Policing In India Report, 2023 (link)