It would be hard to miss the recent additions to the streets of Chennai over the past few months. The ubiquitous presence of tiny flickering lights that belong to the many CCTV cameras placed within 50 metres of each other at most roads and intersections have attracted considerable attention and publicity.
The CCTV cameras are part of an initiative launched two years ago by the Chennai Police to combat crime. Dubbed ‘Third Eye’, the campaign has gained steam over the last six months or so and now covers over half the city.
The Third Eye campaign took wings under the stewardship of incumbent Commissioner A K Vishwanathan. The top brass of the police force felt that the presence of CCTV cameras would serve as a deterrent to crime and also help in cracking existing cases by providing much needed evidence to fill the gaps.
The campaign was launched and intensified after the police force realised the need for greater aid. According to a spokesperson for the Chennai Police, the imperative to keep up with the times was a major driver and technology proved to be a great facilitator. Several high profile cases such as the Swathi murder case prompted the force to ramp up efforts to increase the coverage of CCTV.
Cameras have now been installed at every major junction and street corners. In many cases they are linked to the police control room of the nearest police station. The unique nature of the Third Eye campaign is the high level of involvement of people from all walks. While some of these have been installed using police funds, some have received MP and MLA local funds while citizens and RWAs have also donated to them for CCTV installation.
Private individuals such as shopkeepers, house owners and Resident Welfare Associations have also come forward in great numbers to install street-facing cameras themselves. These cameras are not networked and the data rests with the owners who have installed the camera. In that sense, the Third Eye campaign is one of the largest public-private surveillance networks in the country.
|Thirumangalam: 3,925 cameras
Aminjikarai and Arumbakkam: 3,734 cameras
Villivakkam: 2,505 cameras
Koyambedu: 4,525 cameras
Adyar (and surrounding areas): 10, 427 cameras
Thiruvanmiyur: 1237 cameras
Guindy: 1693 cameras
Saidapet: 900 cameras
Taramani: 2124 cameras
Neelankarai: 2473 cameras
Mambalam and Pondy Bazaar: 750 cameras[Partial data from police sources]
Khaleel Rahman, security expert and proprietor of Pace Security solutions said, “As I see it, it is kept as a deterrent and for record keeping of any incident. As of now, I do not see centralised networking for all the cameras installed, though it may happen in the future. For now the recording will rest with the shop or household that the camera is linked to if they are maintained by an individual.”
Questions and concerns
Such a vast surveillance mechanism naturally raises concerns about privacy of citizens and the potential to misuse the information procured through this method. Khaleel Rahman says, “When the cameras are not networked, the recording will be saved at the point where they are connected, such as to a shop or apartment complex. The footage can be saved for 15 days to a month, after which it will be recorded over. If the camera is privately owned and street facing, then those who have installed it can have access to the footage. There are ways to also password protect and encrypt the footage to prevent access as well.”
Hariharan V, an IT professional raises questions about the way the programme has been implemented. “I’ve been noticing the cameras with a feeling of unease. I understand it is hard to keep track of all activities and it helps the police but many private parties such as RWAs and offices have installed street-facing cameras that they can use for their own ends. It could lead to unpleasant violations of privacy that no one has control over.”
Privacy advocates point out that in the absence of a data protection law, CCTV surveillance operates in a legal grey area that is prone to misuse. While they may be installed with the stated intent of aiding law enforcement, the footage in the hands of private individuals can be used for various nefarious purposes such as stalking, blackmail and extortion. An incident of intimidation faced by a prominent journalist, when CCTV footage of her meeting with a cop at a cafe had been leaked online, raises concerns about privacy and safety of information held.
A spokesperson for the Chennai Police confirmed that they access the footage only if there is report of an incident in the area. They do not seek information for any other reason.
There have also been some questions over gaps in installation in low-income areas. There are no cameras in the housing board tenements in Dr Thomas Road in T Nagar. Two instances of vandalism in the area remain unsolved. “We had someone set a bike on fire in the middle of the night. The bike was completely charred. We called the police and they took a complaint but since there was no one around and no cameras we do not know who is behind it,” says Valli K, a resident in Block M.
In response, the police say that the installation is yet to be completed in all areas as they await more funding and that the final aim of the programme is to bring all parts of the city under surveillance.
With privacy concerns being raised only by a few and a large part of the city already under the watchful eye of the many CCTV cameras, it will be hard to turn the clocks back on Chennai’s transition to round-the-clock surveillance. Chennai Police plans to share footage with the traffic police for cashless invoicing of traffic violators, and therefore, there is always a possibility that more agencies will be privy to the information recorded across the city by CCTV cameras.
In this event, a robust data protection framework that ensures the security of the information collected, as well as clarity on who owns and uses the data, must be in place for the city to prevent the misuse or unauthorized sharing of personal information of citizens.
The public and various stakeholders must be actively involved in the process of installation, in choosing locations. They must always be aware of who can access the data. The programme should follow a grassroots approach rather than the current top-down iteration.
The current surveillance mechanism only has legal sanctions in the form of the Tamil Nadu Urban Local Bodies (Installation of Closed Circuit Television Units in Public Buildings) Rules 2012 which does not cover the privacy concerns of citizens. This must be remedied with clear rules on data sharing with law enforcement and other agencies as well as rules pertaining to footage in the hands of private individuals.
But what about the final impact of this mammoth exercise, in terms of the primary objective of curtailing crime? It is perhaps too early to ascertain that. Also, with no NCRB report since 2016, there are no numbers to show for the phase when the programme really took off. However, on the basis of personal experience, police personnel claim to have received fewer reports of theft and petty crimes since the cameras were put in place.