In August, a couple from Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district made national headlines for their bravery. True to the Tamil adage ‘vallavanukku pullum aayudham’ (for the strong man, even a blade of grass is a weapon), when thieves entered their home, they fought them with chairs, slippers and even a bucket. Despite being armed with sickles, the masked miscreants fled the scene unable to match the counter-attack mounted by 70-year-old Shanmugavel and 65-year-old Senthamarai. The incident was caught on CCTV camera and the couple, whose video quickly went viral, was celebrated for their valour and made for the perfect social media feel-good story. However, as the news cycle was focused on them, senior police officers from the state and many commentators pointed to the importance of the CCTV camera footage. After all, the whole world watched their courage thanks to the CCTV camera affixed on the couple's front yard.
Since 2017, the Tamil Nadu Police has been aggressively pushing for citizens to install CCTV cameras. A techno-futuristic awareness campaign video released last year even roped in popular Kollywood star Vikram to help the police force. “If there are CCTV cameras, crimes are prevented, evidenced and importantly, it provides evidence in court. So, each of us will compulsorily fix a CCTV camera wherever we are,” says Vikram. In a bold declaration, the motto of the campaign affirms, “With CCTV everywhere, Tamil Nadu has become a place without crime.” At the end of the video Vikram suggests Big Brother is watching, stating, “Everything. Everywhere. We're watching.”
But do more CCTV cameras necessarily translate to crime prevention and deterrence? Can technology substitute addressing social, psychological, economic and other individual factors that largely lead to criminality? And what are the perils of over-reliance on technology to fight crime?
What the numbers say
A study released in August by tech research group Comparitech ranked Chennai as 32nd out of 50 of the most surveilled cities in the world. The research group, with the use of government reports, police websites and news articles, puts the total number of cameras in the city at 50,000. With a 2016 estimated population of 1.07 crore in Chennai, that is 4.67 cameras per 1,000 people.
With the help of Numbeo, a crowd-sourced database of perceived crime rates, the study puts Chennai’s crime index at 40.39. On a scale of 0 to 100, this is an estimation of overall level of crime in a given city. This score means Chennai’s crime index is ranked ‘moderate’. Similarly, on a 100 point scale, the city's safety index— quite the opposite of crime index— is at 59.61. The higher the safety index, the safer a city is considered to be.
The two other Indian cities on the list of 50 are New Delhi ranked No. 20 with 1,79,000 cameras for 1.86 crore people (9.62 cameras per 1,000 people) and Lucknow ranked at No. 40 with 9,300 cameras for 35.89 lakh people (2.59 cameras per 1,000 people). The capital's crime index is at 58.77 while its safety index is 41.23. The UP city on the other hand has a crime index of 45.30 and a safety index of 54.70.
Stating that the higher number of cameras ‘just barely correlates’ with a higher safety index and lower crime index, the study concludes, “Broadly speaking, more cameras doesn’t necessarily result in people feeling safer.” While the presence of CCTV cameras may not inherently be bad, experts say that they cannot become a substitute for tackling crime and its causes which transcend the realm of technology. These involve tailored and specific approaches which stem from community building.
The infallible CCTV myth
Pranav MB, policy officer at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bengaluru observes that in the long run, over-reliance on CCTV cameras would merely propel criminals to innovate, as opposed to helping deter the crime from taking place. He says, “While it seems intuitive that the presence of a CCTV camera will have a deterring effect on criminal activity, numerous studies over the past decade have concluded that this is not really the case. The idea of a deterring effect also relies on the assumption that the actors are making educated intelligent choices about their future, which is often not the case with persons that commit criminal acts. So the deterring effect of CCTV cameras is not likely to be much more than the already deterring effect that exists because of criminal law and law enforcement.”
Busting the myth that CCTV cameras are foolproof, Pranav adds that public infrastructure as simple as a streetlight could aid in safer neighbourhoods. “The fact remains, however, that if you are not using advanced technology, a simple mask will render you unidentifiable by most basic CCTV cameras. As more advanced and more expensive technology is used, you are only necessitating the need for innovation among criminals to identify new loopholes that they can exploit in the technology. This is not an argument that generally holds against the use of technology, but in the case of CCTV cameras, it has been seen that simple street lights much better serve the goal of deterrence of crimes,” he says.
However, cops disagree with the findings. One IPS officer who works with the police’s Law and Order department in Chennai tells TNM that the presence of CCTV cameras has helped them nab a range of criminals from chain-snatchers to stalkers who have hacked women to death. Praising the use of facial recognition software like FaceTagr that was introduced a few years ago, the officer says, “CCTV cameras have a dissuading effect on criminals. At the very least they serve as a warning but in most cases, we can easily match them to criminals on our existing local, station-wise database. Especially when it comes to areas like T Nagar, Purasawalkam or other crime-prone suburbs, CCTV cameras are an invaluable tool for law enforcement.”
“Even in cases of sexual abuse, street harassment or trafficking, private CCTV cameras have been helpful. Shop owners or residents have come forward with the footage in public interest,” he says, admitting that the Centre’s release of the long-pending National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics could show a correlation between the push to install CCTVs and crime rates.
With a lack of NCRB data, there are no statistical answers to whether indeed installation of CCTV cameras has helped lowering of crime rates. However, as per one report in The Hindu, the police report a 30% drop in the crime rate in the city following the installation of CCTV cameras. According to their estimate for chain snatching alone, the city police claims that the number of cases have dropped from 792 in 2012 to 538 following the installation of CCTV cameras in 2018.
Over-reliance on technology
Agreeing that law enforcement must be cautious while employing technology to solve crimes, Dr M Priyamvadha, associate professor at the Department of Criminology, University of Madras says her detailed interviews with over 200 incarcerated burglars across Tamil Nadu reveal that they are always on the lookout for a CCTV camera. “They simply use a jammer worth Rs 2,000 (a handy device that disrupts the signal range of a camera) to skirt the presence of a CCTV camera,” she reports. However, the professor cautions that one must not over-sell the capabilities of a CCTV camera in crime prevention.
“We must remember that CCTV cameras don't deter all crimes. If there is family or domestic violence, there won't be a CCTV camera inside the four walls of a house to reveal it. For burglaries, robberies and such offences, you can rely on CCTV cameras. How far it helps is a question mark. You can neither completely say it prevents crime nor that it is a waste,” she says.
The professor points out that even when deploying CCTV cameras across the city, law enforcement does not account for wear and tear and maintenance which forms an important part of monitoring security.
Echoing the sentiment, Pranav says that CCTV cameras primarily serve as sources of electronic evidence in criminal cases. “Their deterring effect has repeatedly been observed to not balance out the costs of installing and running them.”
Privacy, data protection concerns
Chennai-based independent tech researcher Srikanth points to the inherent surveillance dangers thanks to the centralised way in which the city police collects the CCTV data. “There is something concerning especially about Chennai City Traffic Police and other various city police’s approach to CCTV. The fundamental shift is that, at least in the city, these cameras are connected to the police control room. So data gets centrally collated. When centralization kicks in, power abuse isn't far away. This way it is far easier for police to destroy evidence,” he alleges.
Srikanth also points out, “CCTVs (especially connected ones) are usually funded by residents and/or merchants who spend their money in putting up the infrastructure, but freely give away the data to the police (often in good faith). There is no oversight on usage, storage, retention of this data and by sheer monopoly on law and order, the police is able to connect a vast number of private CCTVs on to its network.”
Significantly, he expresses concerns about there being no laws that govern the usage of CCTV footage by the police. “Even if one gives into the legitimate state aim to control crime, even if one can argue violation of privacy is proportional, there is no law around use of CCTV by police, let alone using them in investigations. That the state engages with private vendors (such as FaceTagr) and many others also provides these service providers access to data,” he explains.
Pranav also warns, “Furthermore, CCTV cameras also result in compromising the privacy of individuals, and if implemented by the state (as in the case of law enforcement), creates added surveillance risks. Compounding on this is the issue of the recorded video footage, which if stored/transmitted/managed in an non-secure manner creates data protection risks as well. This is especially true in India, where it is difficult to obtain the required infrastructure and expertise in running an effective and secure CCTV camera system.”
'Technology cannot replace interpersonal relationships'
Advising pragmatic thinking when it comes to crime prevention, professor Priyamvadha says that technology should complement what she calls the ‘human touch'. Junking the ‘holistic’ one-size-fits-all approach that is often paraded as a solution, the criminologist says that each crime requires a tailored method of tackling it. “For each and every crime, there is a different strategy. There maybe crimes committed by juveniles, crimes committed against women. For example, if female foeticide is rampant in a village, it is important to understand the village, the preferences of the people there and the caste practices present among them,” she observes.
While technology often allows law enforcement to cover more ground in cases of limited manpower, there’s also a chance the cameras could be seen as a substitute for forging interpersonal relationships between police and the people they seek to protect. “With quick transferring of cops nowadays, the local police station doesn’t have an understanding of the ongoings. Interpersonal relationships are more important than technological advances,” she notes.