CCTV cameras: crime fighter or big brother? – The Hindu


Two lakh and counting — this is the number of CCTV cameras currently in operation in Chennai. With a camera installed every 50 meters on the city’s roads, one is constantly under watch as they traverse the streets — even the narrow ones. A majority of these cameras have been installed by residents in their streets, shops and apartment complexes.

The police claim they check the footage from a particular camera or a series of cameras on a particular stretch only when a crime is reported in the locality. “Some companies have sponsored the cameras installed along public ways. Many of these cameras are connected to a control room in the nearest police station or police booth. The personnel collect footage as and when needed. The footage will be archived in the coming days,” explains a senior police officer.

The city is perhaps at the forefront when it comes to public funding for the installation of CCTVs. “Nowhere else have we seen people coming forward to install cameras. There is an increased awareness about the benefits of the equipment,” the official adds. The idea behind this initiative, said to be the brainchild of City Police Commissioner A.K. Viswanathan, is that installing CCTV cameras across the city would act as a deterrent against crime, as these cameras are a means for the police to keep watch.

The police claim that the crime rate in Chennai has plummeted nearly 30% since the installation of CCTVs. Statistics show that the number of chain snatching cases was 792 in 2012, but in 2018, following the installation of CCTVs, it dropped to 538. Other crimes like robbery show a similar trend.

“There has been a considerable reduction in different kinds of crime. This is probably due to the fear that they [offenders] may be caught after committing the crime. Though some continue to indulge in chain [snatching] and armed robbery, such incidents have reduced compared to previous years. Detection has also become quicker. In fact, in some cases, it took just a few hours to identify the suspects. People are feeling secure with the cameras around,” the officer claims.

Mr. Viswanathan says the presence of the cameras has also improved the behaviour of police personnel in public. “Even their behaviour is captured, and they naturally behave properly with the public. Similarly, we can differentiate between genuine and fake complaints. There have been instances where individuals had claimed that their chains had been snatched, but upon scouring CCTV footage, we came to realise that the claims were false,” he notes.

M. Priyamvadha, associate professor, Department of Criminology, University of Madras, also vouches for CCTV cameras as a crime deterrent. “We are currently involved in a research on burglary. When we interviewed thieves, they told us that they feared to enter houses equipped with CCTVs,” she says.

Helping hand

The cameras also come in handy to the traffic police in their endeavour for ‘contactless enforcement’. “We now have cashless enforcement. Motorists who flout norms can pay fines by swiping credit/debit cards or make payments in banks, post offices and other authorised centres. Soon, we will be using CCTVs to impose fines on violators. The challans will be sent to their homes,” says a senior traffic police officer.

The cameras also help the law enforcers in accident cases. “We know who is at fault and we can easily crack hit-and-run cases. The footage is also submitted as electronic evidence in court,” the officer adds.

Though the police claim the cameras are a blessing, residents and experts have voiced concerns about privacy. “It is important to screen the companies that install the cameras. There have been instances where miscreants have used footage to blackmail people. Anyone can be stalked. The police will have to first address such privacy issues before asking the public to install the cameras,” says a member of a residents’ association, on the condition of anonymity.

The police, however, assure that the misuse of CCTV footage will warrant strict action. “We want the shopkeepers and residents to install the equipment to prevent crime. However, they will be punished if they are found using the footage to abuse people,” a senior police officer says.

Substitute to patrolling?

Justice K. Chandru (retd.) is of the view that the police should involve the public in the processing of data from the CCTV network. “Privacy is a right. Besides, what is the guarantee that the policemen won’t misuse the footage from the roads? When processing such data, there should be an expert committee with members from the wider society to provide guidance on how such data can be used. In fact, this is being done in temples when the money in hundials are counted,” he says. He also poses the question whether the police are using CCTV cameras as a substitute to patrolling.

Cyber law consultant Na. Vijayashankar feels that though embracing technology is a step in the right direction, the police should also ensure that the data pertaining to the footage is secure and cannot be hacked. “ Background checks on the persons monitoring the footage should be carried out. It is very easy for the individual concerned to use the recording to blackmail someone he/she does not like,” he explains.

V. Suresh, national general secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, accuses the police of systematically feeding the people myths about the infallibility of electronic gadgets. “They have to first address failures in policing, improve police-citizen relationship and deal with long-pending problems such as corruption and abuse of power,” he adds.

Mr. Vijayashankar points to the danger of the CCTV surveillance system being hacked and Denial-of-Service (DoS) attacks being launched against it if the password is not strong enough.

Addressing concerns about the over-reliance on cameras, Mr. Viswanathan says he does not see CCTVs as a solution to every problem. “The camera is just a starting point. It gives us 50% of the solution by way of a jump start. After this, the police have to track down the suspects with their skills. A combination of technology and manpower is used to crack cases,” he explains.

Each of the 135 police stations in the city has three to four patrol vehicles. “We have not reduced patrolling. The CCTV cameras are an additional help. We also ensure that public-police interaction is there. This helps prevent crime to a large extent,” a senior police officer says.

Looking ahead

In future, the police will be installing cameras with facial recognition feature. “It is high time that the police introduce gait recognition, Automatic Number Plate Recognition System and other advanced features,” says Mylapore MLA and former DGP R. Nataraj.

Also, all existing cameras in the city would be linked to a master control room. “We will also take steps to ensure cybersecurity. As of now, we are in the nascent stages,” an officer says.

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