What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘surveillance’? CCTV cameras? For beginners, that’s one way to say: “You are being watched.” Always.
But there are more advanced tools now for mass surveillance and it doesn’t matter who is being watched – a criminal or law-abiding citizen. A large number of Indians, in fact, support surveillance against protesters.
For example, those living in Gujarat are the most likely to back the government on mass surveillance, while those in Punjab are the most strongly opposed to the same.
These are among the findings of the Status of Policing in India Report 2023, released last month by CSDS-Lokniti and Common Cause. Around 10,000 people were interviewed in person across 12 states and union territories for the annual report – published the fifth year in a row. The report tries to find relevance amid a lack of public attention on surveillance and its related threats.
So how does the common person perceive these tracking systems? Are the poor more distrustful of the wide-spread snooping? How many are aware of the right to privacy? And what are people the most anxious about?
We will answer these questions in this segment of the NL Cheatsheet.
Before we dissect the findings, we can better understand “surveillance” through the eyes of two philosophers: Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault. Bentham envisaged a circular architectural design and called it panopticon.
What’s a panopticon? It is a conceptual architectural design, with a circular institution accommodating several prison cells. The architecture is such that a guard in the centre can watch all inmates from the watchtower. While monitoring every inmate may not be technically possible, it at least gives an impression that they are under the watch. Now, Foucault used Bentham’s conceptual design to explain subjugation in a society. He said that in a panopticon, the inmate “is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication”.
This phenomenon resounds in the response of the people surveyed for the policing report.
The report covers largely three mass surveillance tools: CCTV cameras, drones and facial recognition technique or FRT. Most people support government surveillance to suppress protest or dissent. But if the responses are seen in the context of people’s socio-economic background and states, answers vary drastically. For example, people from the lower socio-economic background such as Dalits, Adivasis and minorities are less trustful of surveillance.
Surveillance is also often used to curb protests. Do states react differently?
In all three surveillance parameters, those residing in Gujarat top the list of supporters, and those in Punjab are the most strongly opposed to the same.
Gujarat and UP residents are most likely to back the governments when it comes to the use of CCTV cameras while Punjab, Karnataka and West Bengal are the least likely.
On the use of drones to reign in dissent, Gujarat and Haryana are the most trustful while Punjab and West Bengal are the least.
When it comes to the facial recognition technique, Gujarat and Andhra are most likely to support governments to identify protesters. Punjab and West Bengal are the least likely.
Let’s look at other responses beyond this state-wise categorisation.
When asked if CCTV cameras carry a risk of illegal surveillance, one of two respondents said “yes” while 36 percent disagreed.
According to the report, people with higher education are more likely to believe that CCTV cameras can help in reducing crimes. Previous reports have asserted the same, about advanced technology finding favour among the general public for such use by governments.
Nearly half of the respondents have supported the collection of biometric details by the government. Muslims and Adivasis are the least supportive of this mechanism.
Every second person strongly supports the use of drones by the government, but the poor and farmers are most likely to oppose it, according to the report.
The opinion is divided when asked if the police should have a warrant to check phones. At least 40 percent said that the police should have no freedom to do so. Eight percent wanted complete freedom and 44 percent in selective cases.
A staggering 61 percent of respondents support facial recognition against a group of people protesting against the government or laws.
One out of five respondents believe that the government has the right to monitor social media posts. But two out of three people feel “very” or “somewhat” scared of posting political or social opinion online. Those residing in Haryana, Gujarat and Delhi are the most scared of sharing opinions online. Kerala, Maharashtra and Karnataka the least.
This takes us to Foucault’s panopticon in which inmates are subjugated because they feel they are watched. It does not matter to them if they are really being watched or not. Today, a lot of people steer clear of posting unpopular or anti-government content because of real or imagined fear.
What people are most anxious about is their personal data getting leaked – about 72 percent were worried about their Aadhaar or PAN details.
Against the backdrop of such fears and anxiety, notably, a large number of Indians ostensibly remain unaware of key issues linked to surveillance.
Two of three people have not heard of the Pegasus spyware. The spyware was built by an Israeli firm, and allegedly used by the Indian government. It is alleged to have been used to snoop on judges, dissenters and journalists.
Another section in the report takes us to the debate on the right to privacy and freedom of speech. The right to privacy is a constitutional right as the supreme court spelt it out in 2017 in what came to be known as the Puttaswamy case. But only 16 percent of respondents had heard of the case.
Meanwhile, the report also gave a glimpse into media reportage on surveillance related issues. It analysed 1,113 news stories on surveillance published by six media outlets. In three of every four stories, the primary source was the government. One out of four news stories had a pro-surveillance slant. The Times of India and Jagran are the most likely to have pro-government stories, and the Wire the least. Only 14 percent mention the right to privacy or legality of surveillance.