Women deserve both privacy and safety

Tl;dr

The WCD Ministry has approved use of the Nirbhaya Fund for large scale installation of CCTV cameras under the Safe City Project. However, empirical evidence suggests that CCTV cameras are not effective at preventing violence against women, and without any guidelines governing their operation, these cameras will be used against women for voyeurism and moral policing. The fundamental right to privacy exists even in public spaces, and therefore, any use of video surveillance should be within a proper legislative framework with adequate safeguards, and it should be preceded by privacy impact assessments and followed by post ante audits to assess effectiveness.

Background

The Women and Child Development Ministry (WCD Ministry) has recommended that Rs. 2919.55 crores from the Nirbhaya Fund should be used for the  Safe City Project proposed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). Large scale video surveillance through CCTV cameras is a crucial component of the Safe City Project. While the objective of the Nirbhaya Fund and the Safe City Project is ensuring safety of women, mass installation of CCTV cameras will not serve this purpose.

The Problem is Bigger than Stranger Danger

We must remember that the vast majority of sexual violence and domestic violence in India happens within the confines of the home, and not in public places. For instance, according to NCRB data from 2016, 94.6% of rapes in India are committed by perpetrators known to the victim such as family members, friends or acquaintances. Therefore, installation of CCTV cameras in public places by itself will have a minimal impact on prevention and investigation of violence against women.

Are CCTV Cameras Effective?

Even when violence against women is perpetrated by strangers in public spaces, there is little evidence that CCTV cameras will be effective at preventing such crimes. In 2008, a systematic review of 44 studies from 5 countries on the effectiveness of CCTV systems concluded CCTV cameras have a modest effect on personal property crime but they did not reduce violent crime. Other empirical studies also suggest that mass video surveillance may not a suitable method to prevent violence against women and other solutions such as increased street lighting maybe more effective.

Pan-Tilt-Zoom into Women’s Private Lives

Unless there are strict guidelines and safeguards to prevent misuse of CCTV cameras, the video surveillance infrastructure established under the Safety City Project could become a tool for voyeurism, extortion, stalking and harassment of women. The risk of such misuse is especially higher if footage from CCTV cameras is shared with private individuals and organizations like Resident Welfare Associations.

Empirical studies have found that 10% of all targeted surveillance on women and 15% of operator-initiated surveillance on women is for voyeuristic reasons. In addition to this, there are several real life examples of CCTV cameras facilitating voyeurism, and targets have included even prominent political leaders such as the WCD Minister, Mrs. Smriti Irani and the German Chancellor, Ms. Angela Merkel.

Another Type of Creep We Should Worry About

Since large scale installation of CCTV cameras under the Safe City Project lacks any governing legislative framework, it is highly vulnerable to function creep with advancement in facial recognition and gait analysis technologies.  Footage from CCTV cameras could also be used as training data for facial recognition and gait analysis systems without the knowledge and consent of ordinary law abiding citizens featured in the footage.

Need for Evidence Based Rights Respecting Policy

In light of the above mentioned concerns, we have urged the WCD Ministry to reconsider its decision to invest massive resources in large scale video surveillance projects and consider supporting alternatives such as street lighting, better civic amenities for women, counselling facilities, gender sensitisation in educational institutions etc.

After balancing the likely harms, if installation of CCTV cameras is still deemed necessary in specific areas, it must be done within a proper statutory framework for data protection which includes guidelines for video surveillance. Further, it should be preceded by privacy impact assessments and followed up with post ante audits to review effectiveness.

Important Documents

  1. Representation dated 24.01.2020 sent to WCD Ministry (link)

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