The Expansion of Video Surveillance in India

A recent market analysis (which contained many predictions, more of which tomorrow) identified India as one of the world’s fastest expanding video surveillance or Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) markets, and the coverage of policing plans in the Indian media over the past couple of years would seem to confirm this. In particular, in the wake of the terrorist attack on Mumbai, authorities in all major cities have been pushing ahead with the intensification of security and surveillance measures. This is part of a more general expansion of surveillance in all areas of Indian governance, some of which, like the new biometric census and high-tech border surveillance and UAVs, I’ve mentioned here before.

Cities such as Chennai have announced plan for 10,000 cameras across a range of settings (interestingly in this case, ‘marriage halls’ were one of the first locations to get CCTV – perhaps someone can enlighten me as to why this would be – along with state banks and major malls) and the police chief is quoted as saying he wants “the whole city covered by CCTV.” Delhi is combining a massive expansion of CCTV with increasing numbers of police officers on the streets, so this is not a case of an inhuman technological gaze replacing the neighbourhood police officer. And here, as in the state of Gujarat, in cities like Ahmedabad, the road network is a particular priority with Automatic License (or Number) Plate Recognition (ALPR/ANPR) systems and cameras being installed on all major roads. This ‘Intelligent Traffic Management System’ (ITMS) is designed to be multipurpose and address security, traffic and emergency requirements.

The diffusion of CCTV to more remote and peripheral areas has also been remarkably quick. Just recently, the northern Haryana region has also announced a huge CCTV installation of around 5000 cameras in eight cities, which will be targeted at “shopping malls, main market, major traffic points and escape routes in these cities” – an interesting turn of phrase, which almost seems to portray the city as a prison. Just as in the major urban centres of the country, here too the new systems will employ analytics including movement recognition.

This expansion has not gone unchallenged – see this debate over some of the Chennai systems – but the debates seem rather lifeless and complaints seem to be limited to hoping that there will not be ‘abuse’ of the camera systems by police, and commenting on the lack of any regulatory body for video surveillance. Nor has it all been smooth in technological terms. The Delhi expansion of CCTV builds, as in many cases, from the security upgrades for a ‘mega-event’, in this case the Commonwealth Games in 2010. However, as with much of the infrastructure for these games, there were reports of systemic failure, if not a total lack of functionality from day one. The cameras for the event were apparently poorly calibrated and made watchers dizzy an in some cases, installed where no view could be obtained. It is also not the case that what many nation’s security authorities would consider to be priorities for video surveillance have actually already been covered, even where there has been a demonstrable threat: for example, it is only now that CCTV is being installed at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, which apparently had no CCTV at all prior to this.

Overall, there appears to be strong media backing for a combined state and private sector discourse that emphasises CCTV not so much as a protection against terrorism (though that is clearly present) but as an unquestionably ‘necessary’ or even simply ‘natural’ component of progress, economic development and modernisation. Consider, for example, this description of the new “shining steel” Metro system in the high-tech and global information economy service-centre region of Bangalore, where “automatic fare collecting gates, metal detectors, CCTV cameras and voice announcement systems” were all of a piece along with the announcement of the new ‘signature tune’ for the public transit network. And see also this rather peculiarly de-politicised description of the history (and future) of policing technology in India, written by a former senior officer from Kerala state, in which the British colonial imposition of fingerprinting in India is portrayed as a collaborative advance and in which, of course, CCTV is pictured as part of a similar and apparently totally necessary new series of technological advances designed to drag Indian policing out of a ‘medieval’ period.  At the same time, however the historic (and largely colonial) legacy of a slow-moving, fragmented and conflict-ridden bureaucracy is still resulting in a very uneven diffusion of video surveillance across this enormous country.

Backdoors for Spies in Mobile Devices

There’s been a lot of controversy over this summer about the threats made to several large western mobile technology providers mainly by Asian and Middle-Eastern governments to ban their products and services unless they made it easier for their internal intelligence services and political police to access the accounts of users. The arguments actually started way back in 2008 in India, when the country’s Home Ministry demanded access to all communications made through Research in Motion’s (RIM) famous Blackberry smartphone, which was starting to spread rapidly in the country’s business community. Not much came of this beyond RIM agreeing in principle to the demand. Then over this summer, the issue flared up again, both in India and most strongly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. RIM’s data servers were located outside the countries and the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) said that RIM was providing an illegal service which was “causing serious social, judicial and national security repercussions”. Both countries have notorious internal police and employ torture against political opponents.RIM initially defended its encrypted services and its commitment to the privacy of its users in a full statement issued at the beginning of August. However, they soon caved in when they realised that this could cause a cascade of bans across the Middle-East, India and beyond and promised to place a data server in both nations, and now India is once again increasing the pressure on RIM to do the same for its internal security services. So instead of a cascade of bans, we now have a massive increase in corporate-facilitated state surveillance. It’s Google and China all over again, but RIM put up even less of a fight.

However, a lot of people in these increasingly intrusive and often authoritarian regimes are not happy with the new accord between states and technology-providers, and this may yet prove more powerful than what states want. In Iran, Isa Saharkhiz, a leading dissident journalist and member of the anti-government Green Movement is suing another manufacturer, Nokia Siemens Networks, in a US court for providing the Iranian regime with the means to monitor its mobile networks. NSN have washed their hand of this, saying it isn’t their fault what the Iranian government does with the technology, and insist that they have to provide “a lawful interception capability”, comparing this to the United States and Europe, and claiming that standardisation of their devices means that “it is unrealistic to demand… that wireless communications systems based on global technology standards be sold without that capability.”

There is an interesting point buried in all of this, which is that the same backdoors built into western communications systems (and long before 9/11 came along too) are now being exploited by countries with even fewer scruples about using this information to unjustly imprison and torture political opponents. But the companies concerned still have moral choices to make, they have Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) which is not simply a superficial agreement with anyone who shouts ‘security’ but a duty to their customers and to the human community. Whatever they say, they are making a conscious choice to make it easier for violent and oppressive regimes to operate. This cannot be shrugged off by blaming it on ‘standards’ (especially in an era of the supposed personal service and ‘mass customization’ of which the very same companies boast), and if they are going to claim adherence to ‘standards’, what about those most important standards of all, as stated clearly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12 of which states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence,” and in Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

India’s Biometric Census

A while back I was wondering how India was going to enrol 1.2 Billion people in its planned national Biometric ID card scheme. Well, I should have guessed that the answer was that it would combine it with a national census. This is apparently exactly what is going to happen, according to the BBC. The next Indian national census will be the first one not just to count and classify individuals with written answers, but will also take biometric details. These will then form the basis for the new ID database, with its 16-digit unique identifying number. And the process has already started – the only thing I can think of that will cause it significant problems is not any civil liberties opposition but rather the ongoing revolutionary movements often called ‘Maoist’ but really a lot of different loosely affiliated rural-based organisations…

Indian surveillance build-up continues

India is investing massively in surveillance equipment both at national level and within the country, Video surveillance is expanding in cities, and it is also putting R&D and operational funds into major projects like a new mountain-top border radar system and now, a satellite platform that, it is claimed, will be “fitted with an intelligent sensor that will pick up conversations and communications across the borders.” Presumably this means a system rather like the US satellites that have been in operation since the 1980s that ‘vacuum’ up microwave communications signals from mobile telephones, rather than some kind of impossibly powerful microphone! Interestingly the story in the Hindu continually refers to the new devices, whether they be radar or satellites, as “network-centric”, and is peppered with references to “electronic warfare”,  showing that Indian military planners have almost entirely swallowed US strategic doctrines that emerged from the 1990s. With the USA now operating openly in Pakistan, the source of recent terrorist raids into India, and tensions ratcheting up with China, it seems that the US is backing India as its major regional partner, or at least that India is aping US methods.

India plans ‘world class’ electronic surveillance for Commonwealth Games

The Times of India reports on the Indian government’s plans to implement comprehensive surveillance for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. One aim seems to be to create the kind of ‘island security’ with which we have become so familiar at these kinds of mega-events: vehicle check-points with automatic license-plate recording and recognition; x-ray machines and other scanners for vehicles (and perhaps people too). They will also massively expand CCTV systems and not just in the actual Games area, but throughout the city of Delhi.There are also, as usual plans to use more experimental surveillance and control techniques (as with the use of sub-lethal sonic weapons in Pittsburgh the other day), in this case a drone surveillance airship,” capable of taking and transmitting high-density visual images of the entire city.”

However, this is not just about the temporary security of the games. As with many other such mega-events, the Indian government appears to be planning to use the Delhi games as a kind of Trojan Horse for the rolling out of similar and more permanent measures in big cities across the country. The Times article claims that the Ministry of Home Affairs intends to expand the measures and “soon the same model is planned to be replicated across the country,” and in particular on use of airships, “similar airships would be launched in other big and vulnerable cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Chennai.” And there will be an infrastructure too, apparently “the IB [Intelligence Bureau] is silently working to create a command center to monitor all-India intelligence and surveillance.”

Of course the threat of ‘terror groups’ is the justification, and there’s no doubt there is a threat to Indian cities from such groups, particularly those based in Pakistan. However, the Indian public shouldn’t assume that anything done in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’ will: 1. actually work (in the sense of preventing terrorism); or 2. be used for those purposes anyway. This same trend happened  in the UK during the early 1990s, when the threat of the Provisional IRA was the justification, and before most people in Britain had even noticed, a massive (and it seems ever-expanding) patchwork of CCTV camera systems had been created, which were joined by further repressive measures even before 9/11. And did this massive number of cameras stop London being attacked by terrorists? No, it didn’t.  7/7 still happened. But of course we had lots of good pictures after the event for the media… and they are very expensive and don’t even do much to stop regular crime, as a recent meta-study has shown. What would be more effective would be peace and co-operation with Pakistan, a move away from both chauvinistic Hindu and Muslim nationalisms and extremisms which only generate resentment and hatred, and old-fashioned targeted intelligence work on those very few people who are actually planning terrorism – not mass surveillance and the gradual erosion of civil liberties of the entire population based on state fears that some of them might be guilty.

Finally, this is about globalization. The whole way this is promoted by the Indian government is as if there is some international competition to install as much CCTV and security as possible. But the global spread of the surveillance standards and expectations of the rich western elite is a self-fulfilling logic that benefits only the massive global security-industrial complex.