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regular-article-logo Monday, 20 May 2024

Survey finds support for police surveillance to check crime, political dissent

Turns out that only about one in six respondents has heard about the right to privacy judgment by the Supreme Court

Pheroze L. Vincent New Delhi Published 01.04.23, 05:15 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. File Photo

A survey across 11 states and Delhi has found widespread support for police surveillance to check not just crime but also political dissent, and low awareness of privacy rights.

Among the key findings of the survey by the NGO Common Cause and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies are that more than half the respondents “strongly justify the government’s use of CCTV cameras for controlling protests” and “only about one in six respondents has heard about the right to privacy judgment by the Supreme Court”.

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Only about half the respondents fully agreed with the judgment. The Status of Policing in India Report 2023 also found that support for CCTV surveillance to control political protests was high in BJP-ruled states like Gujarat (95 per cent) and lowest in Bengal (29 per cent). A similar pattern was seen on the question of the use of Face Recognition Technology.

The technology's use “by the police or government on those protesting against government laws/ policies” found support in Gujarat at 84 per cent but Bengal registered “low support”.

“Three out of five people strongly believe that the police should be able to tap an accused person’s phone or CCTV footage without a warrant, while one-third believe they should be able to do so with the victim or any other relevant person,” the report says.

The sample was made up of 9,779 people. The focus of this year’s report is “Surveillance and the Question of Privacy”.

“In states like Kerala, Haryana and Assam, more than 90 per cent of respondents supported the installation of CCTVs in public places. People are largely in favour of the installation of CCTVs in public places,” the report says.

However, alongside the support was considerable fear that such installations posed the risk of illegal mass surveillance.

“In Tamil Nadu, a significant proportion of the respondents (73 per cent) felt that the installation of CCTVs in public places runs the risk of illegal mass surveillance. Similar levels of concern were also observed in another southern state — Andhra Pradesh (including Hyderabad city from Telangana state), where 60 per cent of respondents were concerned about mass surveillance,” the report says.

“On the other hand, in Assam, a larger section of people (45 per cent) believed that the increased presence of CCTV cameras in public spaces does not pose a risk of illegal surveillance.”

As for monitoring political protests, “nearly 95 per cent of the respondents in Gujarat justified the government’s use of CCTV as a means to control political movements of all sorts”.

“Two-thirds of the respondents from Uttar Pradesh and Haryana (65 per cent and 64 per cent, respectively) completely supported the use of CCTV in clamping down on protests. In these three states, there was an extremely small proportion of people who were against CCTVs being used by the state for political purposes. All three states are currently ruled by the BJP,” the report says.

“However, respondents from West Bengal, Punjab and Karnataka were not as enthusiastic in their support. Only one-third of the respondents (29 per cent) from Bengal completely justified the use of surveillance footage to curb dissent. The number is slightly higher in Punjab (36 per cent) and Karnataka (37 per cent).”

Only about one in six respondents had heard about the Supreme Court’s 2017 judgment that declared privacy a fundamental right.

Awareness was low also about the Pegasus phone-tapping scandal — the government’s alleged use of Israeli spyware to snoop on political opponents, journalists, judges, activists and other ordinary citizens — but many supported such practice.

“Two out of three people (67 per cent) responded in the negative, while just a quarter of the respondents (25 per cent) said that they had heard of Pegasus spyware,” the report says.

“Respondents were most likely to strongly support such targeted surveillance of suspected criminals (43 per cent). On the other hand, a little over a quarter (27 per cent) said that it should be used against politicians.

“Troublingly, about 20 per cent were also strongly supportive of the targeted surveillance of bureaucrats, journalists and lawyers. On the other hand, 51 per cent of the respondents strongly opposed the targeted surveillance of ordinary citizens.”

The survey found wide support for the use of Face Recognition Technology “by the police or government on those protesting against government laws/ policies”.

“Six out of every 10 respondents (61 per cent) supported such use, with Gujarat (84 per cent) most in support, followed by Andhra Pradesh (73 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (69 per cent). The states where low support was found were Punjab, Kerala and West Bengal,” the report says.

The more educated one is, the more one trusts CCTVs, the survey found.

“As levels of educational attainment rose, there was increasing trust in CCTVs’ utility in monitoring and reduction of crime. While eight of every ten (82 per cent) among non-literates agreed with the statement, the proportion rose to nine of every ten (95 per cent) when it came to those who had access to college education,” the report says.

“The level of education is directly proportional to the perception of cameras in the domain of law and order. Six of every ten (68 per cent) respondents who had access to college education reported that cameras help in assisting the process of crime investigation. In comparison to them, a little over half (51 per cent) of the non-literate respondents endorsed this view.”

This despite the fact that “the number of CCTV cameras available with the police, including those from private establishments, institutions and societies (that the police have access to), is significantly lower than the overall number of CCTV cameras within the cities”.

Also, “there is no statistically significant relationship between the CCTVs available with police stations and the rates of total cognisable crimes, murder, and auto/ motor theft from 2016 to 2020”.

At the release of the report, Justice J. Chelameswar, former Supreme Court judge and former Chief Justice of the Kerala and Gauhati High Courts, said the use of CCTV cameras in public places was not a violation of one’s privacy.

“The problem is not with the camera. The problem is how the data is utilised by investigating agencies. If investigative agencies… were not efficient enough to utilise the data, naturally the crime rate won’t come down,” Justice Chelameswar said.

He called for a logical and transparent legal regime to regulate surveillance.

“The requirement is to exert more democratic pressure on lawmakers to create more rational legal systems to regulate this kind of activity in the country."

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