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Surat’s Massive Surveillance Network Should Cause Concern, Not Celebration

Posted by Joe Sheehan at Aug 03, 2014 03:00 PM |
The blog post examines the surveillance network of Surat, a city in Gujarat state in India.

The Surveillance System

Surat, a city in the state of Gujarat, has recently unveiled a comprehensive closed-circuit camera surveillance system that spans almost the entire city.  This makes Surat the first Indian city to have a modern, real-time CCTV system, with eye-tracking software and night vision cameras, along with intense data analysis capabilities that older systems lack.

Similar systems are planned for cities across India, from Delhi to Punjab, even those that already have older CCTV programs in place.  Phase I of the system, which is currently completed, consists of 104 CCTV cameras installed at 23 locations and a 280 square foot video wall at the police control room. The video wall is one of the largest in the country, according to the Times of India.

Narendra Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, launched the project in January 2013, though the project was original conceptualized by police commissioner Rakesh Asthana, who has cited the CCTV system in Scotland Yard as his inspiration.

Phase II of the surveillance project will involve the installation of 550 cameras at 282 locations, and in the future, police plan to install over 5000 cameras across the city. Though other security systems, like those in Delhi, rely on lines from the state owned service provider MTNL, with limited bandwidth for their CCTV network, the Surat system has its own dedicated cables.

The security system was financed by a unique Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model, where a coalition of businesses, including many manufacturing units and representatives of Surat’s textile industry want to prevent crime. The many jewelers in the city also hoped it would limit thefts.  In the model, businesses interested in joining the coalition contribute Rs 25 lakh as a one-time fee and the combined fees along with some public financing go to construct the city-wide system. The chairman of the coalition is always the Commissioner of Surat Police. Members of the coalition not only get a tax break, but also believe they are helping to create a safer city for their industries to thrive.

Arguments for the System

Bomb blasts in Ahmedabad in 2008 led the Gujarat police to consider setting up surveillance systems not just in Ahmedabad, according to Scroll.in, but in many cities including Surat. Terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and at the Delhi High Court in 2011 lent momentum to surveillance efforts, as did international responses to terror, such as the United Kingdom’s intensive surveillance efforts in response to 2005 bombing in London. The UK’s security system has become so comprehensive that Londoners are caught on camera over 300 times a day on average. The UK’s CCTV systems cost over £500 million between 2008 and 2012, and one single crime has been solved in London for every 1,000 cameras each year, according to 2008 Metropolitan Police figures.

However, citizens in London may feel safer in their surveillance state knowing that the Home Office of the United Kingdom regulates how CCTV systems are used to ensure that cameras are being used to protect and not to spy. The UK’s Surveillance Camera Code of Practice outlines a thorough system of safeguards that make CCTV implementation less open to abuse. India currently has no comparable regulation.

The combined government worries of terrorism and business owners desire to prevent crime led to Surat’s unique PPP, ournalist Suarav Datta’s article in Scroll.in continues. Though the Surat Municipal Corporation invested Rs 2 crore, business leaders demonstrated their support for the surveillance system by donating the remaining Rs 10 crore required to build the first phase system. Phase II will cost Rs 21 crore, with the state government investing Rs 3 crore and business groups donating the other Rs 18 crore. This finance model demonstrates both public and private support for the CCTV system.

Why CCTV systems may do more harm than good

Despite hopes that surveillance through CCTV systems may prevent terrorism and crime, evidence suggests that it is not as much of a golden bullet as its proponents believe. In the UK, for example, where surveillance is practice extensively, the number of crimes captured on camera dropped significantly in 2010, because there were so many cameras that combing through all the hours footage was proving to be an exercise in futility for many officers. According to Suaray Datta’s article on Scroll.in, potential offenders in London either dodge cameras or carry out their acts in full view of them, which detracts from the argument that cameras deter crime. Additionally, prosecutors allege that the CCTV systems are of little value in court, because the quality of the footage is so low that it cannot provide conclusive proof of identities.

A 2008 study in San Francisco showed that surveillance cameras produce only a placebo effect–they do not deter crime, they just move it down the block, away from the cameras. In Los Angeles, more dramatically, there was little evidence that CCTV cameras helped detect crime, because in high traffic areas the number of cameras and operators required is so high, and because the city’s system was privately funded, the California Research Bureau’s report noted that it was open to exploitation by private interests pursuing their own goals. Surat’s surveillance efforts are largely privately funded too, a vulnerability that could lead to miscarriages of justice if private security contractors were to gain to security footage.

More evidence of the ineffectiveness of CCTV surveillance comes in the Boston marathon bombing of 2013 and the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001. In the case of the Boston bombing, release of CCTV footage to the general public led to rampant and unproductive speculation about the identity of the bomber, which resulted in innocent spectators being unfairly painted with suspicion.

India’s lack of regulation over CCTV’s also makes Surat’s new system susceptible to misuse. There is currently no strong legislation that protects citizens filmed on CCTV from having their images exploited or used inappropriately. Only police will have access to the recordings, Surat officials say, but the police themselves cannot always be trusted to adequately respect the rights of the citizens they are trying to protect.

The Report of the Group of Experts on Privacy acknowledges the lack of regulations on CCTV surveillance, and recommends that CCTV footage be legally protected from abuse. However, the Report notes that regulating CCTV surveillance to the standards of the National Privacy Principals they establish earlier in the report may not be possible for a number of reasons. First, it will be difficult to limit the quantity of information collected because the cameras are simply recording video of public spaces, and is unlikely that individuals will be able to access security footage of themselves. However, issues of consent and choice can be addressed by indicating that CCTV surveillance is taking place on entryways to monitored spaces.

Surat is not the first place in India to experiment with mass CCTV surveillance. Goa has mandated surveillance cameras in beach huts to monitor the huts and deter and detect crime. The rollout is slow and ongoing, and some of the penalties the cameras are intended to enforce seem too severe, such as potentially three months in prison for having too many beach chairs. More worryingly, there are still no laws ensuring that the footage will only be used for its proper law-enforcement objectives. Clear oversight is needed in Goa just as it is in Surat.  The Privacy Commissioner outlined by the Report of the Group of Experts could be well suited to overseeing the proper administration of CCTV installations, just as the Commissioner would oversee digital surveillance.

Concerns of privacy and civil liberties appear to have flown out the window in Surat, with little public debate. It is unclear that Surat’s surveillance efforts will achieve any of their desired effects, but without needed safeguards they will present an opportunity for abuse. Perhaps CCTV initiatives need to be subjected to a little bit more scrutiny.

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