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India’s CCTV Spy Network, Part 2 of 2

[This is Part Two of a 2-part series of articles about how India is rolling out a patchwork of unregulated government-driven integrated video and face recognition biometric identification systems that trade citizen privacy for questionable national security.]

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As stated in Part One, cities in India are contracting out the development and maintenance of networks of CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras hooked up to database-driven biometric facial recognition identification software systems. There are no national regulations regarding citizens’ rights and legal reach for the use of these identification technologies which is raising ethical concerns in a nation ranked high for its internal corruption.

Without common standards, the future of CCTV-based surveillance systems in India looked bleak. Pramoud Rao, managing director of Zicom Electronic Security Systems, pointed out the need for state customizations beneath a national directive:

“Security is a state subject. Even if the central government recommends, it will be the state government that takes the final call. Also, you cannot standardise beyond a point. There is no one-size-fits-all formula. Each city security needs are unique. Mumbai and Goa’s city surveillance needs are very different. Goa has vast expanses while Mumbai has crowded marketplaces.”

Along with the high costs of installing city-wide CCTV face recognition networks came privacy concerns, including this from a former bureaucrat:

“Policies and processes have to be put in place to secure the access and security of the feeds generated by the CCTV networks. Given our weak legal framework on privacy, we have to ensure that the CCTV networks are not misused.”

Fast forward to July 2019. News from Delhi reported that the city is launching its CCTV video surveillance program to prevent crime.

On July 7, technicians began setting up always-on cameras near residences and commercial properties and inside schools in metropolitan Delhi. The goal is to rig up an average of 4,000 cameras in each of Delhi’s 70 assembly constituencies, for a total of around 280,000 cameras.

Crime is a political issue in India. The incumbent Aam Aadmi (“Common Man’s”) Party has made reducing crime rates a key election issue in the upcoming election for a new state assembly. The party has promised that the CCTV cameras will “deter premeditated crime and foster a semblance of order among the general public.”

Critics of the secretive Delhi plan include Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) who said:

“None of the [operational] details [about the project] have been shared by the Delhi government. There [are] no legal or regulatory mechanisms in place.”

Kritika Bhardwaj is a Supreme Court attorney representing the IFF who claimed:

“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.”

The Delhi face recognition spy network is estimated to cost about $73 million in US dollars and record in excess of 16 million people. Bhardwaj indicated several shortcomings of the new system:

“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.”

With no statutory framework governing the project, rules that exist in other cities which have created data protection laws and strict guidelines to regulate their CCTV systems will not apply. For example, in London, England, images recorded by city cameras are automatically deleted after 31 days. The Delhi project has no such controls in place.

Finally, recent studies suggest that CCTV surveillance has only a “modest impact on crime” and is “more effective at preventing crime in car parks, and less effective in city and town centers, public housing, and public transport.”

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Here’s the bottom line, according to Campbell Collaboration, which studied the effects of closed-circuit television surveillance on crime and published its finding in December 2008:

“CCTV surveillance does not have an effect on levels of violent crime.”

Given that scientific conclusion, one has to wonder why NEC Technologies India, IT and network technologies integration leader, was awarded a contract as the master system integrator for installing CCTV surveillance and traffic management systems in Gurugram City, India? The spy system will “perform traffic enforcement and general surveillance across 115 sectors of Gurugram and Manesar. The project was awarded in March 2019 and is expected to be implemented within this year.”

The Gurugram Municipal Development Authority weighed in with the official justification for spending so much money for such questionable results:

“The current population of Gurugram is estimated to be close to 2.5 million and is expected to grow rapidly over the next few years. We need to constantly aim and strive to work towards enhancing public welfare, and NEC’s leading position in the field of public safety is paramount behind our decision to work with them. We are hopeful that the successful implementation of this project will propel Gurugram into an attractive city to live, work and visit.”

Experts agree that technology without safeguards is a risky business that runs the risk of trampling citizen rights to privacy.

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