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CCTVs In Delhi Schools: Is The Govt Breaching Young People’s Right To Privacy?

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“Big Brother is watching you.” 
― George Orwell, 1984

The Delhi government’s move to install CCTV cameras in all government schools by the month of November this year is a move which is likely to split parents down the middle. Parents will be provided with live CCTV video feeds so they can keep a watch on their child’s behaviour in school, for a limited amount of time, via a mobile app called ‘DSG live’. Barring washrooms, cameras will allow for all-encompassing access to the school premises. The feed from these cameras will also be monitored from a control room in the school.

The Aam Aadmi Party has previously implemented a host of progressive measures for the reform of the public education system (such as the ‘Happiness Curriculum’ or the ‘Mega Parents Teachers Meeting’) in the country’s capital. But their decision to up the surveillance in school settings is a move with dangerous implications. I hear the warning bells of an Orwellian nightmare and so their decision needs to be scrutinised more carefully.

Amber Tickoo, a 20-year-old law student filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) plea to challenge the Delhi government’s policy, but the Supreme Court of India refused to intervene and stay the policy. It’s interesting to note that the apex court has unequivocally upheld the ‘right to privacy’ under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and called it the “constitutional core of dignity.” Since children are considered to be incapable of giving their consent ‘legally’ and their parents’ approval was not sought, the petitioner was of the view that the Delhi government’s move directly contradicted the apex court’s verdict on privacy.

Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal heralded his government’s move as a “historic milestone in school education in the country.” He dismissed any concerns regarding children’s right to privacy by saying that their focus should be on learning instead. He defended the policy by saying that it will instil more discipline in the classroom setting, curb instances of truancy and teacher absenteeism, and improve the overall safety of schools. By roping in parents in the process of monitoring the footage, Kejriwal is of the opinion that there will be increased accountability as they can highlight the inadequacies in classrooms, they “can question the government about it.” While he claims that this move is an indicator of his party’s good governance, it appears to be an example of his party catering to borderline-regressive, protectionist, middle-class values.

One can understand the reasoning behind CCTV cameras installed in strategic locations such as the main gate of the school, and maybe some corridors which have been specifically identified as problem areas in the context of a particular school, for safety purposes. But that is no reason to install CCTV cameras in all classrooms.

One can’t ignore the harmful impact that being under constant surveillance might have on the developing psyche of children. It may limit exploration to socio-culturally acceptable standards and curb the all-round development of a child. Personally, I wouldn’t have engaged in half the experiences I did in school if I was afraid of being admonished by my parents. Learning in school is not limited to acquiring bookish knowledge. There is a host of individual and inter-personal experiences which also teach children.

Interaction between the sexes is already heavily policed by persons in positions of authority. Instances of moral policing will surely rise when parents can see their children interacting with classmates. Schools will end up becoming sanitized spaces instead of being safe havens for children in their formative years. Both the good and bad decisions I made in school have contributed to the authentic young adult I have become.

CCTV cameras may yield short-term benefits but can turn out to be disastrous in the long-term. CCTV cameras might deter children or adults in the school setting from committing a crime because they are afraid of being caught. While that is a welcome change, it is not a sustainable one. It is a reductionist argument to make too because we are all aware of crimes being committed elsewhere even when CCTV cameras are present.

CCTV cameras are not a fool-proof way to protect anyone. Children who transform themselves into goody-two-shoes to appease their parents may potentially become adults who lack a clear, moral compass of their own. They could possibly behave in a certain way, not because they want to, but because they should. While this might seem ideal on the face of it, shouldn’t education be empowering children to become conscientious adults, who are also freely and fully being themselves? A state actor using technology to breach the privacy of its citizens shouldn’t be treated lightly. It will pave the way for a non-state actor to do the same perhaps, and an NSA can’t be held up to the same standards of accountability. Kejriwal also said that private schools have been directed to install CCTV cameras and ensured that they will be made to strictly adhere to the directive.

Adults will be able to look at children other than their own at the click of a button, which reeks of voyeurism. This move might set a precedent for egregious abuse of human rights as there is also the possibility of the footage being misused by parents, or of the footage ending up in the wrong hands. Also, the absence of audio means that parents will not be able to rely on the footage to make note of disparaging verbal remarks or bullying aimed at their children. Lack of strong data protection measures forms a gaping hole in this policy, a flaw that shouldn’t be sidelined in this day and age. Data leaks of Aadhaar cardholders’ personal information is a reality. Now, children are being put at the same risk because of insufficient safeguards. Also, on this International Youth Day, the pertinent question that we must ask ourselves is, shouldn’t every child be entitled to safety—both physical and emotional?

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  1. Ted Moallem

    I’m wondering why Indian parents don’t just neuter their children around 10 or 11 years of age. They can put the gametes in cold storage, of course, for when they’re ready for grandkids. Neutering makes dogs and cats so much more manageable, no worries of accidental pregnancies, which seems to be what Indian parents worry most about. The kids will focus better on their studies. They’ll never become full-fledged adults, they’ll be much less likely to stand up for themselves… you know, like what you’re doing to your kids now, but so much less effort!

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