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Don’t Need Big Brother Watching Us: Who Says CCTVs Will Make Women Safer?

Posted on February 28, 2015 in Gender-Based Violence, Politics, Society, Staff Picks, Taboos

By Kavita Krishnan:

The Railway Minister announced a move to install CCTV cameras in railway coaches and women’s coaches in suburban railways, ‘without compromising privacy’. Also, one of the election promises of the AAP Government in Delhi to ensure women’s safety has been installation of 15000 CCTV cameras in Delhi’s streets.

Are CCTVs the best way for Governments to spend money, in order to tackle gender violence? This question is worth considering, carefully.

Picture Credit: Steve Rotman
Picture Credit: Steve Rotman

CCTVs are a relatively easy thing for Governments to promise to tackle rape. CCTVs in public spaces can give people in urban spaces the message that the Government is ‘doing something about crime’. Mobile apps are another such ‘technological fix’ for violence against women.

Authors of a research study on CCTVs in Australia, note that “Even representatives of the security industry have noted ‘the increasing willingness of politicians using the implementation of surveillance cameras as election carrots,’ (‘Open-Street CCTV in Australia: The Politics of Resistance and Expansion’, Adam Sutton and Dean Wilson, Surveillance and Society)” even though their study found that “available evidence failed to establish that cameras reduced crime.”

What has the experience in India been? The Hyderabad Urban Lab, which specializes in research on urbanization, in their recommendations to the Committee on Women’s Safety in Telangana, commented on the experience of CCTVs in Hyderabad. They do not reject CCTV use in toto, but they do offer some important cautions, which are worth quoting in full:

“Hyderabad’s experience in the use of CCTVs is comparable to international experience. Cyberabad Police have demonstrated that CCTV surveillance can help in investigation of some cases. However, CCTV’s value in deterring crime in Hyderabad is still an open question. To maximize this effect, careful study has to be made with the specific goal of identifying the primary triggers and sites of crime and deploy cameras accordingly.

According to news reports citing vague claims that London has managed to bring down crime by 80 per cent by the use of CCTVs, the Government is planning to install a large number of CCTV cameras across the city.

However, scientific studies by reputed criminologists suggest that claims about surveillance technologies directly leading to fall in crime rate are often exaggerated. Research evidence from across the world, including London, which has become a model of high density surveillance, suggests that the CCTV surveillance has proved useful in targeted contexts especially for property related and vehicle related offences.”

They also point out that “In short, investment in new surveillance technologies is at best a short term deterrent. In the long term, only an investment in social institutions can guarantee safety for women.”

From the above, it is clear that there really isn’t much evidence to show that CCTV surveillance deters crimes against women.

But there are other, more worrying concerns too.

Freelance writer Richa Kaul Padte writes about some these other concerns. Again, this is worth quoting at length, and I strongly recommend that you read it in full.

…surveillance is a hot topic in several forums, from tech conferences to top-level government meetings. But what often gets left out of discussions is this: surveillance has, historically, socially and politically, always been an issue of gender. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to the technologies of today, because living under constant surveillance is enmeshed in the experience of being a woman – and has been way before CCTV became a thing. And much of what we experience as digital surveillance today is still rooted in gender inequalities.

From the dude opposite you in the underground who definitely seems like he’s taking a picture, not searching for signal (uh, we’re under the ground) to the CCTV your building installed that now shows you drunkenly stumbling home late at night, the surveillance camera – hidden or otherwise – is everywhere.

She mentions how CCTVs were installed at huge cost on Puri beaches – only to be removed after women protested, because they did not want cameras watching them as they swam in the sea.

When a journalist asked the Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal if CCTVs might not impact privacy, he replied, ‘What do you want to do on the street that you want to hide from people?’, Padte addresses this question.

Proponents of mass surveillance often ask the question, ‘If you have nothing to hide, why are you worried?’ Leaving aside the dangers of mass data collection, racial profiling, and treating everyone like a criminal-until-proven-innocent, this question has a bunch of different implications for women.”

Women live in constant surveillance in society: they are watched and their movements are monitored and controlled by their families, by lovers and husbands, or stalkers – and all this watching is often justified with the ‘safety’ argument. ‘Safety’ becomes a means to justify the loss of autonomy.

There are in fact many things women do, that they could not do if they were forced to disclose these to their loved ones. In this circumstance, ironically, surveillance can just as easily be the source of danger. Women who are having a relationship with someone without telling parents, can risk losing their life if their parents come to know the secret. Mobile apps that allow a ‘loved one’ to track your movements can be creepy and scary for many women, whose intimate partners obsessively track them and snoop on them. In my experience as a women’s rights activist, I can’t count the number of cases where women seek help in dealing with a jealous husband or lover who wants to keep track of his wife/partner every minute. Tracking apps would allow him to snoop and stalk, as a ‘safety’ measure.

Moreover, in India, women going about their business on streets, feel unsafe and uncomfortable when alone – but they also feel discomfited by the eyes of people judging them for the way they dress or their behavior.

How will CCTV footage be used? Are there dangers for women in the ways it will be used?

In the Delhi metro, CCTV footage of couples was leaked as pornography on the internet. This incident should serve as a warning bell as to how vulnerable CCTVs in public spaces can make women.

And no, if Governments tell us that this should rather be a lesson against public display of affection, they are speaking the language of the Sangh moral policing outfits, and the language of victim-blaming. Even in public spaces, couples are entitled to spaces of privacy; they are entitled to expect others to mind their own business. This episode ought to make us pause and ask: Who exactly is going to watch the footage? What laws do we have in place to keep the data safe and the watchers accountable? What will they be looking for?

We need in particular to put ourselves in the shoes of the poorest and most vulnerable women, children and men, and then ask what CCTVs will mean for them. Urban policy-making rarely takes the needs of these people into account. But we must.

On streets, railway stations, trains, and buses, poor women, kids, transgenders and poor men live a precarious existence, an existence that involves an uneasy relationship with ‘legality’. Most of their means of survival – begging, street walking/sex work, sleeping in public spaces, cleaning compartments, etc – are treated as ‘illegal’. As it is, they face severe harassment at the hands of police. In the eyes of those who view the CCTV footage looking for ‘suspicious’ persons, it is these people who are likely to be profiled and harassed. Sue Bolton of the Socialist Alliance, Australia writes, “CCTV cameras will more likely be used to harass people who graffiti, or for racial profiling. In Melbourne’s CBD, CCTV cameras are used to identify and harass people who are begging. This is fundamentally wrong.”

The truth, as we know too well, is that the poor are not the source of danger for women. Women and children are most at risk from those they know and trust.

Yes, CCTVs can help identify perpetrators in some cases. But there too, one needs to be cautious. Explaining why CCTVs do not promote safety, Sue Bolton writes, “In the case of the Boston bombings, many people were wrongly identified as the perpetrator of that crime, with serious consequences for their lives and reputations.”

CCTVs involve huge expenditure, with disproportionately low results to show for it. There are many risks of CCTV footage being misused by the State (releasing footage to media or social media; racial and communal profiling; profiling of the poor and of sex workers; moral policing) or by individuals in the security forces itself (for snooping or stalking on individual women etc).

So, what measures should the Government spend on?

Sue Bolton writes about the efforts of the Moreland Council in Melbourne to install CCTV cameras following the murder of a woman Jill Maegher. The murder had been followed by massive protest marches – but protesters also rejected the move to install CCTV cameras.

Instead, the Socialist Alliance and feminist groups in Australia had suggested better ways to use the public funds in ways that would really help prevent gender violence and support victims, including better street lighting, restoring public phones, all-night public transport, a door-to-door community bus, programs to prevent family violence and an education campaign to combat sexist and racist stereotypes and culture.

In Delhi too, women’s groups who conducted a safety audit on December 16th 2014, have drawn up a detailed list of achievable measures that can actually help make streets safer. And women’s groups have also suggested detailed measures to prevent violence and help survivors (public education, as well as accessible crisis centres and shelters, for instance). To make train journeys safer for women, what is needed is to improve the sensitivity and accountability of the RPF as well as appointment of trained staff on all trains and stations, available at the press of a button, specifically to offer support and respond promptly and sensitively to women facing harassment and violence.

The Central Government, instead, has declared that it will only open rape crisis centres in States, not districts as earlier promised. A Government that is slashing allocation to rape crisis centres is spending on CCTVs in trains.

Public education and supporting survivors is what women’s groups do every day. It would make sense for Governments to talk to them, and learn from their insight, instead of offering surveillance as a panacea for ‘safety’.

Kavita Krishnan is Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association and tweets at @kavita_krishnan