Issues relating to safety and security within urban spaces and metropolitan cities are an ongoing debate, and over the past few years, the CCTV has emerged as a means to tackle the ‘threats’ in city spaces.
It must be said that a culture of fear, that has developed in the recent years, specifically with the turn of the millennium, has seemingly trained people into a state of paranoia, allowing for such surveillance. Along with the ubiquity of the CCTV, there is also that of the (individual and media) camera recording crime and mishaps in the city. Various ‘security measures’ have become legitimately part of the quotidian in urban city spaces, for instance, we see a growing militarisation of public areas such as campuses, market places, neighbourhoods, etc. Therefore, the constant reminders of the precarious state of the cities have allowed frequent security checks, scanning, and even frisking, to become a common phenomenon for the average citizen.
All these factors significantly contribute to a civilian’s awareness of the possibility of the ‘dangers’ in the urban space. The fears are not only realised through the constant occurrences of violence reported through the media, but experienced at an individual level, or as a group/community as well. Moreover, aside from crime, the city, as a whole, is constantly haunted by the phantom of an enemy.
And in this, the country’s choice of bogeyman has for long been in tandem with the global fears of violence and disruption in civil society — terrorism. However, the culture of fear is not a baseless feeling of apprehension about mythic ‘risks’ in the urban space. The supposed ‘dangers’ that justify surveillance lie in the possibility of anything untoward that may happen within a large, mostly unrestricted metropolitan and/or urban space. The dangers may be in the form of a pre-planned terrorist bomb blast in the capital, or in the form a physical assault by goons in deserted parking lot. But it is omnipresent, and makes up an important characteristic of urban-life. In such a situation, boards in public spaces warning, “You are under CCTV surveillance”, become accepted as an ordinary aspect of an urban space. Being under CCTV surveillance, in fact, for long has provided ordinary people comfort knowing that crime is being monitored. It is particularly comforting in highly-populated, enclosed spaces such as shopping malls or Delhi Metro, for instance.
My first engagement with the Delhi Metro transit culture was in the year 2009 as a college student. It was just a year after the horrific series of bomb blasts in the capital, and the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The memory of the blasts and attacks were still very fresh in people’s minds when I started traveling by the metro. One of the attacks took place in a train station, and all sorts of scenarios would come to mind while moving around in the perennially crowded stations of urban spaces.
The public as a whole was all too conscious of their vulnerability in the underground and enclosed spaces of stations. As a result, the security checks and scanners, although sometimes inconvenient and time consuming, felt desirable. Passengers often reminded each other to place their belongings in the baggage scanner to ensure safety. I remember a woman once reprimanded a female security personnel for scanning the passengers carelessly. That time, we were getting used to being watched, and we wanted to be watched. We wanted to be under the CCTV surveillance at all times, because that meant the criminals and terrorists were also being watched, and crime was being prevented every single day. After the 2012 gang-rape case, the proposal for installing CCTV cameras throughout the city was taken seriously, as the government invested crores into it.
I had read George Orwell’s 1984 around the same time as I began using the metro to travel within the city. The theme of state control and surveillance fascinated me immensely as a student of literature, and I found myself reading more and more dystopian fiction in those years. A few years later, I decided to study surveillance in the urban space of Delhi, and how, although in its nascent stages, it was developing its own culture of fear that allowed for surveillance measures. Fed on Marxist theories, I found signs of state-control everywhere. Since I used the blue line and the yellow line most frequently, I came to notice the circular structure of the Raj Chowk that facilitated surveillance — Foucauldian theories would come to mind frequently. The cameras were everywhere, and I became all too aware of the watchful gaze.
It was also during that time I noticed how surveillance shapes social behaviour of the people. The metro had delineated spaces for movement and waiting. The routes were clearly charted, directions given everywhere, and there were phantom guards who appeared out of nowhere if you were too close to the tracks or sitting on the steps. The Metro, for the first time, showed that the populace did not need coercion anymore to be disciplined. The idea of being watched was enough to curb disturbance. They were being monitored and could be penalised for misconduct at any time. On top of everything else, the continuous announcements warning people against misdemeanour seemed to intimidate the masses into complying. The instructions seemed to be hypnotising everyone into adherence.
The Aadhar program was taking place amidst all this. The few feeble voices against biometric surveillance and such state-monitoring mechanisms did not last long. Crime rates were going up every year. The urban middle class and elite wanted to be able to recognise the category of people who posed the ‘threat’ on order. Delhi seemed like a completely fluid and unregulated space which needed some kind of systematic monitoring. After the December 2012 rape case, especially, rape cases in the country were being given more media attention. For some time it seemed, the mainstream newspapers only carried news of rape incidents. The statistics were appalling. The urban spaces were getting more and more unsafe — or it had always been unsafe but everybody was talking about it now. The culture of fear in Delhi had given rise to a perennial feeling of being under threat at all times. There is an anticipation of violence at all times. And the city needed to recognise the source of danger and was mostly content with the possibility of profiling.
Around the same time, they planned to install CCTVs in Connaught Place as part of “safety measures”. All of it was supposed to make the urban spaces smarter. Therefore, it didn’t take me long to notice that the seeming desirability of surveillance in the urban spaces that I inhabited stood in glaring contrast with the responses to surveillance within Urban Studies in developed countries — at least in the theoretical approaches that I was exposed to as an urban studies researcher. In fact, as I worked on my research relating to surveillance in Delhi, I found much of the theories inadequate and largely irreconcilable with the reality around me. The criticism against profiling and surveillance was largely incongruence in the case of Delhi.
This, specifically, was on my mind when the recent news about Lucknow installing AI-enabled CCTV cameras within the city to curb sexual harassment came out. As a woman, the idea of being watched, followed, and observed and then being told it is for our own ‘good’, is all too familiar. The objection to cameras scanning women’s faces, therefore, feels understandable. In a society which regulates women’s every action, the additional eyes of our home-bred ‘big brother’ adds to the feeling of oppression. It certainly violates people’s privacy and serves as yet another means of surveilling women.
However, I was intrigued. The cameras are supposed to scan the facial expressions of women to alert the police. But while part of me was impressed that we have access to such advanced technology, I was skeptical about the efficacy of such technology. In my experience, whenever I have faced harassment in public places, my facial expressions have not been significant enough (women usually look away or stay straight-faced to avoid direct confrontation). I wonder if such CCTVs will be useful at all because as far as I know, women prefer to ignore some incidents out of a sense of self-preservation, and their first concern is to gain distance from the harasser as quickly as possible. Are the cameras in these urban spaces only meant for those extreme incidents when the woman has to call out for help or is stuck in a no-escape position? What is the exact manner in which the CCTV uses the facial expression technology? How does the system understand facial expressions when reactions to harassment cannot possibly be predicted. Has technology decoded the wide spectrum of psychological responses to sexual harassment, and even understood how it is manifested in the facial expressions of women? And what about the sociocultural variables? What about the external factors that might impact a woman’s response? Then again, in a city which has a large population of Muslims in both urban and rural spaces — a community in which women very often don the hijab, niqab, and burkha, how useful will these cameras be when the face itself is not visible?
Before we talk about the invasion of privacy, we need to first question the whole rationale of understanding if a woman is in distress by scanning something like facial expression through AI. Impressive as it may sound, the state needs to come up with far superior safety mechanisms, and work to tackle crimes against women at all levels. More importantly, being watched cannot be the way to make women feel safer. Instead of the society becoming advanced, are we simply advancing technology to make future urban spaces like cities still more patriarchal, and this time, AI-enabled? Are we already in this dystopian future?
Ipshita Nath teaches English Literature at University of Delhi. Her book of short stories on Delhi, The Rickshaw Reveries, was published by Simon & Schuster India, in 2020.
Featured image source: National Geographic