In India, the government of Delhi is rolling out an ambitious video surveillance program as a crime-prevention measure. Technicians will install more than a quarter million closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras near residential and commercial properties across the city, and in schools. A central monitoring system is expected to take care of behind-the-scenes logistics, though authorities have not shared details on how the feeds will be monitored.
After delays due to political and legal wrangles, the installations began on 7 and 8 July. The first cameras to go up in a residential area were installed in Laxmi Bai Nagar, at a housing society for government employees, and at the upmarket Pandara Road in New Delhi. When the roll out is complete, there will be an average of 4,000 cameras in each of Delhi’s 70 assembly constituencies, for a total of around 280,000 cameras.
In early 2020, the National Capital Territory of Delhi (usually just called ‘Delhi’), which includes New Delhi, the capital of India, will vote to elect a new state assembly. Lowering the crime rates is a key election issue for the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party (literally, Common Man’s [sic] Party). The party has promised that the CCTV cameras will deter premeditated crime and foster a semblance of order among the general public.
However, digital rights activists have raised a number of red flags. “None of the [operational] details [about the project] have been shared by the Delhi government,” says Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), an independent digital liberties organization. “There [are] no legal or regulatory mechanisms in place.”
In June, the IFF served a legal notice to the Delhi government to halt the CCTV camera installations, stating that the project put the privacy and freedom of Delhi residents at risk. Kritika Bhardwaj, a Supreme Court lawyer who advised the IFF, says “We have learnt that recordings will be accessible to ‘residents’ welfare associations, police, and the government,’ with absolutely no clarity on who will maintain these CCTV systems, how long the footage will be stored, and whether there are any security requirements for storing/accessing such footage.”
Operators in a control room monitor CCTVs installed on 6 July in the classrooms of a public school in Lajpat Nagar, a neighborhood of New Delhi. More than 1,000 schools in Delhi will be equipped with CCTV cameras by November.Photo: Getty Images
Bhardwaj calls this “a matter of grave concern” for a program that will cost the equivalent of US $73 million and affect the lives of more than 16 million people. There have been no public consultations inviting comments or suggestions on the rules governing the cameras, no cost-benefit analyses, and the tender process was done without the bid documents and the scope of work being made publicly accessible, the IFF reports.
Bhardwaj also points out, “There is no statutory framework governing the project.” This is a marked departure from the way public surveillance camera systems work in other cities, such as in London, where they are governed by data protection laws and strict guidelines. Images recorded by London’s cameras are automatically deleted after 31 days. No such stipulation exists for Delhi’s project. Government authorities in Delhi did not respond to a request for comment.
Studies also show that the efficacy of CCTV cameras in crime prevention may be overestimated. “They haven’t been proven to reduce violent crime,” says Gabe Turner of Security Baron, a consumer-oriented security website, though there is some evidence that cameras can discourage petty crimes if used as part of a broader security system, which includes security guards or improved lighting. They can also make the public feel safer. For Delhi residents, this could mean trading their privacy for the perception of safety.
Payal Dhar (she/they) is a freelance journalist on science, technology, and society. They write about AI, cybersecurity, surveillance, space, online communities, games, and any shiny new technology that catches their eye. You can find and DM Payal on Twitter (@payaldhar).