AAP promise of CCTV coverage needs more thought, WiFi more conviction

Aam Aadmi Party's Delhi Dialogue promises free WiFi to the citizens of DelhiAam Aadmi Party's Delhi Dialogue promises free WiFi to the citizens of Delhi

I saw Arvind Kejriwal’s easy dismissal of privacy rights when Ravish Kumar raised the question of privacy with regard to Aam Aadmi Party’s promise of installing CCTVs in public places in order to “reduce crime”. Other arguments on social media include making Delhi safer for women and so on.

This appears to be a rather reckless and reactive embracing of a solution that appeals to the AAP DNA – “prove it, show documentation” gene so to say. If a crime happened, then the CCTV will be proof to prosecute. Delhi will be safer for women. Absolutes appeal to AAP. Black, white. Aar ya paar, doodh ka doodh… etc

There appears to be a lack of understanding of fundamental rights when Arvind Kejriwal asks Ravish what he does on a street that he would choose to hide. This is not so much unlike other privacy violating arguments governments make and is just as much against civil rights as intercepting email would be.

I may be on the street, but I am not public property, only the street is. If a stranger photographing me on the street without my consent is a violation of my privacy, it doesn’t smell sweeter if said stranger is the state. I don’t have to have a reason to be refused to photographed. And this personal right cannot be discarded just because the entity taking non-consensual images of me is the state.

To someone interested in privacy rights, Arvind Kejriwal’s reply was as ignorant as that of Modi’s when he’d blithely dismissed brain drain as a non-issue. These are real issues and if not researched, deserve at least a sober reply that commits to researching them. Here’s an example of how security can use such footage to violate your rights.

While it is true that CCTV footage can help identify criminals, an entire city with CCTV coverage creates potential to do a lot more than identify criminals and it is invasive of privacy just as stalking is invasive of privacy. You standing on the same street as me is not a problem, but when you’re standing wherever I go, all day, then it is a problem. I may not be doing anything on the street, but I may not want people to have the ability to know where I went and what I did all day, everyday.

The idea that using the streets of Delhi means being okay with being watched wherever you go is very disturbing.

We have already seen footage of couples necking on the Delhi Metro. How long do you think it will take before say college students are blackmailed for money or favors with threats of their families discovering their bunking college or boyfriends or girlfriends? Will the girls of Delhi really be safer with a chauvinistic police force able to watch them daily and perhaps even follow the more interesting of them around the city?

How long before jealous spouses or controlling parents start bribing cops to keep an eye on people who have no idea they are being watched and could unwittingly return home to violence?

For your CCTV to be really effective, it will be a matter of months at most before intelligence agencies start queuing up to put pressure to have unlimited access in the name of security. To catch criminals more effectively, face recognition technology (which also often has false positives) will be “needed”.

And these are still scenarios of routine corruption or misuse of power. What happens when a Center that is paranoid of NGOs and already suspected by many to spy on political opposition as well as leaders uses these CCTVs to monitor “national security”?

The Aam Aadmi Party is a party chock full of activists, born in an agitation and is well familiar with just how far a state can go to subvert dissent. What do you think happens if whistleblowers and RTI activists can be monitored across the city using CCTV?

Because these are the uses a CCTV coverage of an entire city can be put too as well. How many times does an escaping criminal need to be identified on an average street, and how many times are vulnerable girls, activists, political adverseries walking down it? What will we be sacrificing for all and who will we be endangering by grabbing what appears to be a quick fix?

Can the Aam Aadmi Party promise to be in power forever? Can it guarantee that the foundations of surveillance it has laid will not victimize the people of Delhi no matter what party is in power?

These questions need close answers. It is not a simple matter of “what do you have to hide?” in a country where people catching the eye of the state don’t necessarily have to do wrong to suffer.

In a country where the first victim of a crime is the CCTV footage and over 90% instances of rapes happen off the streets and by people known to the victim (so identifying is not an issue), what miracle is expected from CCTVs to take so much risk with civil liberties?

Is this to say CCTVs are useless? No. They have their advantages, and those advantages could be identified and leveraged. For example:

  1. Creating a separate body with a high degree of safeguards to monitor the CCTVs and for any other entity to require a court order to access footage. The authority can be provided with rights to act at discretion in an emergency to give access it deems necessary to prevent a crime or ensure safety or prevent escape of a criminal with a formal process of explanation later. Such access too can be graded in the sense of officials monitoring cameras providing updates or access to the actual feed from the camera. Thus there is a direct chain of accountability for the use and misuse of the cameras.
  2. Accessing cameras locally rather than centrally for whole city. This would reduce potential for stalking.
  3. Identification of areas that are crime prone where the presence of a CCTV would prevent crime or assist in tracing criminals. For example, if there is a high density of crime in a certain spot, and if the nature of the crimes is such that a CCTV would help identify criminals, then that area could be covered by CCTV instead of carpet bombing the city. Needless to say, the success rate of the cameras installed in fighting crime must be assessed and where there is no measureable impact, the cameras should be removed.
  4. There should be a clear process for determing the scope of the CCTV camera project and assessment of risks to privacy should include privacy rights activists and technology experts from the civil society.

These are just some examples on how to avoid grand and reckless declarations of CCTVing an entire city and do more harm than the scope of even the good intent.

I would appreciate it if Arvind Kejriwal can acknowledge that there are serious questions raised about CCTVs and that he publicly commits to assessing privacy concerns and minimizing risk of misuse before the CCTVs are implemented.

About the promise of WiFi for the entire city, I endorse it wholeheartedly. I think Arvind Kejriwal’s answer was somewhat lukewarm on the subject, therefore I would like to point out that WiFi allows anyone with a mobile phone to access the internet, instantly giving voice and access to information to a vast section of society. This is very enriching to democracy by encouraging intellectual capital, access to information and transparency. It will free people to seek information beyond what is packaged and presented to them from all directions and thus is among the few ways still left open that a deteriorating right to information can be bolstered. Thus, free WiFi is a great equalizer and inherently pro-democracy.

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About the Author

Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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