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CCTV Cameras: Governance by Surveillance?

CCTV Cameras: Governance by Surveillance?
A CCTV camera being installed at the UP assembly premises in Lucknow/Photo: UNI

Above: A CCTV camera being installed at the UP assembly premises in Lucknow/Photo: UNI

Despite a judge advocating State surveillance, it creates a society without privacy or freedom of thought and has a “chilling effect” on people

By MG Devasahayam

In November 2017, the Supreme Court ordered installation of CCTV cameras in all courtrooms. The apex court said that installation of CCTV cameras in courts would be in the larger public interest, discipline and security. Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit trashed the privacy argument, saying: “What privacy? This is not a case of privacy. We don’t need privacy here. Judges don’t need privacy in court proceedings. Nothing private is happening here. We all are sitting in front of you.”

In September 2018, the Delhi High Court upheld the installation of CCTV cameras inside school classrooms and rubbished claims that children’s right to privacy would be affected. A bench of Chief Justice Rajendra Menon and Justice VK Rao said there was “no privacy issue” with regard to having CCTV cameras in classrooms as nothing private was being done there. Judges also observed that the concerns of privacy have to be balanced with the safety of the children, adding that often parents accuse teachers of not teaching and therefore, the cameras would show the correct picture.

Now, the Madras High Court has “strongly recommended” to the chief secretary of Tamil Nadu to install CCTV cameras inside the rooms of all bureaucrats in order to eliminate sexual harassment of women at workplaces. As a first step, Justice SM Subramaniam issued a directive to the High Court administration to install CCTV cameras in his official chamber within two weeks.

However, the judge failed to address the privacy issue of installing CCTV cameras in a judge’s chamber. This or­der could open the door for State surveillance and there are many arguments against it. First and foremost is the argument of freedom over safety. As Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

State surveillance creates a society without privacy or freedom of thought. It creates a disturbing culture wherein those being observed may feel the need to alter their behaviour regardless of whether they have done anything wrong. There is a “chilling effect” on society, where people internalise the fact they are constantly being observed and judged by some hidden criteria. The “chilling effect” will be deadlier when judges of the higher judiciary are subject to state surveillance in their own chambers where they deliberate and write judgments that have far-reaching implications.

The same arguments apply mutatis mutandis to bureaucrats, often meaning senior civil servants and police officers. Their offices are not “public spaces” or open classrooms or courtrooms. Mee­ting the public is only one of their functions. Most of their time is spent on file-work, holding meetings and discussing issues, many of which would be confidential. Putting them on surveillance is inviting “Big Brother” to watch over them and control everything.

The judiciary and bureaucracy are vital instruments of governance. The term governance refers to the decision-making and implementation processes in the administration of a country, state or organisation. At the country/state level, governance is the exercise of political, economic and administrative au­thority in the management of multifarious affairs. Governance comprises complex mechanisms, processes and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, mediate their differences and exercise their legal rights and obligations. Good governance is participatory, transparent and acc­ountable. It is effective in making the best use of resources and personnel and is equitable. Basically, it promotes justice and the rule of law.

In a democracy, as distinct from an autocracy, governance should be society-centric. Its dominant part will be the government, but it would also include the private sector and civil society. All three are critical for sustaining human, economic and social development. Governments create a conducive political, administrative, legal and living environment. The private sector represented by trade, commerce, agriculture and industry promotes enterprise and generates jobs and income. Civil society, represented by the voluntary sector, facilitates interaction by mobilising groups to participate in economic, social and political activities.

We are a democracy and should adhere to democratic governance. Such governance should adopt certain functional norms and principles such as the involvement of stakeholders in the decision-making process; transparency and accountability at all governmental and societal levels; citizens’ participation in the process of social and public welfare, economic growth and development. Importantly, there should be enough space for civil society to freely express its views and opinions on the agenda of the government without fear or favour.

Surveillance, on the other hand, is keeping a close watch on targeted persons and their activities by the police and intelligence agencies. Doing it manually could interfere with the privacy and freedom of the individual. But doing it extensively, that too through advanced technologies, could severely compromise the fundamentals of a free society. Surveillance and its systems work on advanced video camera technology. These cameras are generally connected with internal protocol networks, which help to connect the network from the remote area to the assigned security area. Nowadays, there has been tremendous use of these surveillance cameras in many public and government sectors in order to keep their respective areas secured.

There are many ways to monitor the working of judges and bureaucrats who are lax and need to be tightened. But CCTV surveillance is certainly not the way. If the State indulges in advanced technology-based surveillance of critical entities, there can be no democratic governance. Only governance by suspicion and fear. This is best avoided.

—The writer is a former Army and IAS officer


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