The signboards hinting that “you are under CCTV surveillance” have become part of our daily lives. Wherever we go, be it a railway terminal, market, airport, shopping mall, park, place of worship, or workplace, we encounter these signs. The idea of being watched has been gradually ingrained deeply in people’s consciousness. We have accepted it as the ‘new normal.
For the state, video surveillance is an effective tool with multiple applications. Ensuring the safety of its population, especially women and children is the primary objective. The fear of being watched can thwart unlawful actions, at least in those selective spaces. Thus, to a great extent, Close Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras seem effective.
Certain segments of civil society have raised valid criticisms against the mass surveillance techniques of the state. However, the general concern over safety induced an approval of such measures among the greater number. Thus people’s anxiety about security lets governments dashes ahead with comprehensive surveillance policies, particularly in swarming cities.
In this context, the Delhi government’s decision to install CCTV cameras in all public schools was presumed to be promptly welcomed by the public. On the contrary, it triggered a controversy. As the squabble goes on, it is essential to have a perspective on the issue to answer the following questions:
- Do CCTV cameras invade the right to privacy?
- How far can the state go to ensure security without intervening in social life?
Why are schools under CCTV surveillance?
The Aam Admi Party’s (AAP) decision to set up in-school CCTV cameras is not an immediate one. The AAP election manifesto of 2015 promised to put CCTV cameras in all public avenues across Delhi. The proposal aimed to resolve the general distress caused due to the poor public safety apparatus. It was in 2017 that the Minister of Education Manish Sisodia announced the extension of video surveillance to all government schools.
Not only classrooms but every nook and cranny of school premises except washrooms will also be under constant observation. The recorded visuals are streamed in real-time through a specially designed app to all parents. Parents will receive login IDs, and they are allowed to log in twice a day. Only parents and head teachers were allowed access to recordings to ensure fairness.
During a press conference in 2019, Mr Sisodia exemplified the scheme’s objectives. The prime objective is obviously to prevent unlawful activities among and against students. Another one is to instil self-discipline and encourage good conduct among children. The rationale put forward by the government to support the massive surveillance plan for schools has raised criticism.
The Delhi Parents Association and the Government School Teachers Associations have approached the Hon. High Court of Delhi against the plan. Teachers and parents cited the scope for misuse or misinterpretation of visuals at the hands of a large heterogeneous community of parents, citing it as a breach of the right to privacy and dignity. They also pointed out the possible psychological impacts on children. The constant reminder of being watched by either parents or teachers could impact the students negatively. The government differs by stating that schools are public places.
Surveillance and privacy
The Oxford dictionary defines privacy as a state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people’ or ‘a state of being free from public attention. In India, the right to privacy is a fundamental right protected under Part Three of the Indian Constitution. It is a natural right that is an integral part of the right to life and liberty. It protects an individual from the scrutiny of the state in their private life. Hence, any action by the state that violates the right to privacy is deemed to be unconstitutional. Although, when the case against in–school CCTV cameras was taken to court, the judiciary favoured the Delhi government’s decision and approved its furtherance.
It is because, at present, the court has only encountered three instances of surveillance, say, surveillance for security, public surveillance, and private surveillance. The judiciary has always favoured CCTV cameras in public places in the first two cases. In the third case, the court strictly struck down any attempt by the state to invade the privacy of individuals. In the case of Delhi public schools,’ the court cannot invoke the right to privacy as schools are considered public spaces and not private.
The problem here is that in India right to privacy is governed by the Right to Privacy Act and the Information Technology Act 2000. These acts aim to protect one’s personal information or sensitive visuals of private and sexual nature. As the visual from schools does not fall under this category, the Supreme Court of India has refused to put a stay on the project on the grounds of breach of the right to privacy.
Is live streaming problematic?
The government’s decision has attracted contradictory responses from society. So in order to reach a rational conclusion, let us take a look at both the opposing viewpoints.
Possible benefits of CCTV surveillance
On the upside, with live streaming, parents can check on their children anytime. It will provide them with a feeling of security. Recently, reports of heinous crimes against students like physical and mental assaults, sexual abuses, rapes, and even murders committed on school premises justify public anxiety. To a certain extent, it can guarantee a restraint of misbehaviour not only among students but also by teaching and non-teaching staff. Notably, in a metropolis like Delhi, where in most cases, school administrations fail to guarantee a safe environment for students, it succour.
For the state, live streaming of visuals to parents endorses public participation and relieves itself from the role of sole protector. Moreover, mandatory monitoring possibly imparts accountability and transparency to practices in Delhi’s government-run schools, which were infamous for inefficiency. So the quality of services might improve.
Drawbacks and security threats
In this scheme, consenting parents can get live access to see how their wards ‘behave’ in class and how teachers teach. Here the intention appears to be good, but it is not. A school is not just an institution but a social space where children can independently exercise their ‘agency’. If parents can observe all that happens there, how their child is behaving among peers, how attentive they are in class, who they are friends with, etc., schools can turn into arenas for parental litigation. Factors that divide society can find their way into classrooms, viz., class or caste hierarchy, religious discrimination, moral judgments, and so on.
“However noble the aim is, setting up CCTV cameras in schools is surveillance. It is an authoritarian term that preaches control of human behaviour, a modern manifestation of biopolitics.”
The imminent threat to the privacy and personal dignity of the ‘observed’ is a cause of worry. The officials claim these CCTV cameras do not have facial recognition facilities. So fear of bio-metric data theft is eliminated. Nevertheless, they failed to foresee the likely misuse and manipulation of visuals they make available to every parent. As policymakers, they should have considered all such aspects that put an individual’s dignity at risk. The authorities have not tailored the Live streaming in a way where the visual of a child is visible to his/her parents only.
On the contrary, any parent can see any student or teacher at any time while at school, sometimes when alone. It causes inconvenience to the female and physically challenged students and staff members. Undoubtedly it is a breach of the right to personal dignity and privacy.
Undeniably in-school CCTV cameras play a significant role in maintaining the safety of students. While it is essential to strengthening security on school premises, it is equally important to assure the protection of individual dignity from video surveillance. Both states and the judiciary have recently shown a rapid pro-CCTV approach, favouring mandatory installations. However, they completely ignore that we need a mechanism to regulate every aspect of visual surveillance, considering its social and psychological impact upon the target group, the children.
While allowing cameras in schools, the authorities must try to bring about the right balance between security and privacy. To achieve the balance, they should address the anguish of its primary stakeholders; the children, teachers, and parents. Appropriate legislation will help to make surveillance democratically accountable.
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About the Author
Anaina M Raj is a freelance writer and an avid observer of world politics. She tries to explore the alternative narratives and latent dimensions of interstate and intrastate relations. She holds MA in International Politics from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Her research interests include international security, geopolitics, IR theory, securitisation and foreign policy.