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.

What’s Wrong with Video Surveillance?

Occasionally, you need to simplify and clarify. Someone asked me the other day, “so, what’s wrong with CCTV anyway?” Here was my quick answer.*

1. Does CCTV prevent crime?

The prevention of crime was the main rationale for CCTV in Britain back in the early days in the 1990s, and this rationale is still the main one currently in the USA…

But meta-evaluation of valid studies of CCTV by Welsh and Farrington, recently published as Making Places Safer by OUP, shows the following: that studies can only show a positive correlation between reduction in rates of crime and the installation and operation of CCTV in limited situations, namely in car parks and the like. This is because car theft is a more rational form of crime (the perpetrators are often professional criminals and they do not want to get caught). Most crime, especially street crime and violence is not so rational. People do not generally look up in their violent drunken haze and think ‘ooh, there’s a camera, better not kick this guy’s head in’.

According to Martin Gill and co.’s work evaluating 14 schemes across the UK, only 1 resulted in a clear reduction in crime over the longer term. CCTV can have temporary effects in reducing crime (and police studies always seem to be done in these early months and hence are very misleading), but over the years after installation, unless other things are done, the crime will return to similar levels. It’s those other things that are done – more community volunteers, neighbourhood watch schemes, better street lighting, economic regeneration – that make the difference to crime rates. People who think they ‘know’ it’s down to CCTV are just looking at A and B and thinking changes to A must be a result of B, without considering C, D and E…

What can be useful in this regard, knowing that temporary reductions can be made, is to use CCTV in targeted, temporary and flexible manner – i.e. if you are going to have video surveillance at all, make it moveable and used to target specific areas where there have been sudden increases in crime.

So, so much for prevention…

2. What about solving crime? Surely CCTV gives us lots of evidence?

Well, not as much as you might think. The biggest study of street robbery and CCTV in London (the city with the highest density of cameras in Europe), commissioned by the Metropolitan Police, showed that only 3% of such crimes were solved using CCTV . And, figures released in 2007 through Freedom of Information Act requests, showed that 80% of crime in London still goes unsolved even with this infrastructure.

3. But at least someone’s looking out for us – right?

Studies of control rooms show that the professionalism and seriousness of operators is increasing but there is still evidence that more time is spent on anti-social behaviour and dealing with ‘unwanted’ people than the potential for serious crime, particularly in shopping districts. Who is watched and why is also complicated by family and social connections, especially in smaller towns. CCTV systems are also increasingly difficult to watch as the numbers of cameras and screens increase; there aren’t enough staff, however well-trained they are, to do a really efficient job in most cases and computer analytics are not good enough (yet).

In addition, there is the growing issue of cost. There were originally subsidies for installing CCTV in Britain in the 1990s, but running costs, maintenance and replacement have to be covered by the operators (usually Local Authorities) and there is an ongoing row going on behind the scenes between LAs and police in the UK about who pays for it.

Now costs are starting to bite, exacerbated by recession and new Tory efficiency savings, some local authorities have even started to either combine their monitoring with others – meaning even more distant and less efficient watching and in some cases have stopped watching the cameras live at all (in many countries this dead recording is normal anyway).

4. What about the Courts?

The only undoubtedly positive effect seems to be that it encourages criminals who are caught to confess and plead guilty, which saves court costs and time – although of course, guilty pleas mean that the criminals are punished less and out of prison quicker (if they go in at all), which might be felt not to be an advantage by some!


Video Surveillance, particularly fixed CCTV,  is expensive, inefficient and has all kinds of negative social side-effects. Public money would be better spent on improved street lighting, schemes for community involvement and economic regeneration. CCTV certainly isn’t a ‘Panopticon’ because actually it doesn’t actually ‘see’ very well at all nor does it actually seem to alter behaviour as much as states would like in itself, but it does appear to contribute to the decline of social trust and decreasing personal responsibility, which are partly at least to blame for the problems CCTV is supposed to solve, and all of which would be more likely to increase with other solutions.

*In most ways, this answer is not really ‘mine’ – it’s the distillation of many other people’s work, some of whom are mentioned here, some of whom like Clive Norris, Mike McCahill, Will Webster, Pete Fussey and Gavin Smith, are not… anyway, they know who they are! Thank-you all…