Smile! You’re on cameraNepal Police currently operates 1,200 CCTV cameras inside Kathmandu. They want to raise the number to 21,000
This past week, a tidbit from a story on The Record caught my attention: although it was long suspected that China had been partly assisting Nepal Police with surveillance equipment, the news article confirmed it. When its reporters visited the control room at Metropolitan Police headquarters at Ratna Park, ‘the entire space [was] dominated by an enormous screen which...beamed text in Chinese that we could not read, headed by the phrase “China-Nepal” in English.’
While human rights activists have long accused Nepal Police of installing CCTV cameras in Bouddha for surveilling on Tibetan refugees, Nepal Police spokespeople and senior officials have refuted this allegation. Instead, the Police has been saying that CCTVs assist them in catching criminals and gathering evidence—a variation of the ‘smart policing’ theme. ‘The installation of CCTV cameras in as many areas as possible will allow us to monitor criminal activities,’ Deputy Inspector General Shailesh Thapa Kshetri told this newspaper, while the Inspector General said at a recent interaction, ‘The use of CCTV aids not only in controlling crimes but also carrying out evidence-based crime investigation.’
There are 1,249 CCTV cameras currently being operated by Nepal Police across the valley. An internal study, however, has determined Nepal Police requires more than 21,000 CCTVs to be installed for proper monitoring purposes. ‘A total of 9,117 points in Kathmandu, 5,985 in Bhaktapur and 6,339 in Lalitpur require the fixation of advanced cameras for security purposes,’ a Rising Nepal story reads. These cameras will supposedly be installed within the next five years. This is just the valley. Nepal Police records suggest more than 3,000 CCTVs are installed across the country, a number that will surely increase.
It is not surprising that Nepali security agencies have been increasingly pushing for the use of digital surveillance. While the transition of Kathmandu from a lazy capital city to a fast-growing metropolis caught everyone unawares, increasing bilateral cooperation with China has also hastened this move. The joint communique issued after the Chinese President’s visit also emphasises on continued efforts to ‘strengthen cooperation between the law enforcement agencies on information exchanges, capacity building and training’. While other aspects of this security cooperation remain opaque at best, it is most likely that digital surveillance will increase in the days to come, possibly with China’s assistance.
We have to turn our lenses to other parts of the world to understand what this could mean for a country like Nepal. In Ecuador, a New York Times investigation found that police officials used Chinese surveillance equipment to install 4,300 cameras across the country. But the feed was also used by domestic intelligence agencies which used it to spy on opponents of the government. Similarly, the National Investigation Department in Nepal will soon get sweeping powers if an amendment bill is passed in the Parliament, including powers to spy on foreign nationals and institutions or groups ‘detrimental to national security’. That could be anybody. For example, in Uganda and Zambia, Chinese telecommunications company Huawei’s technicians helped government forces spy on their political opponents’ encrypted social media and used ‘their cell data to track their whereabouts’.
China is, quite simply, the world leader in public surveillance. Eight of the 10 most surveilled cities in the world are in China. Chongqing is at the top, with 2.5 million cameras for its 15.3 million people, or 168 cameras per 1000 people (in contrast, even if the Valley gets 21,000 more cameras, it will amount to about 5 cameras per 1000 people). Shenzhen, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing are all on the list; the only non-Chinese cities in the top 10 are London and Atlanta. While surveillance by itself begets fears of breach of privacy, the more worrying concern is how the technology is evolving. A human rights organisation has alleged Chinese authorities ‘are using a mobile app to carry out illegal mass surveillance and arbitrary detention’ in Xinjiang. A more recent iteration is an AI camera that distinguishes between the facial features of various ethnicities, or ‘minority analytics’.
But if you thought it was just China, you are wrong. Most countries across the world today prefer digital surveillance systems. A Carnegie report on surveillance says that 75 countries today use AI-driven surveillance techniques, with smart city platforms, facial recognition systems and smart policing systems. Huawei ‘alone is responsible for providing AI surveillance technology to at least 50 countries worldwide.’ This is the same Huawei that is at the centre of the US-China trade war, and has also been awarded a contract to build the Nepali Prime Minister’s ‘action room’ to directly monitor projects. American systems are found in 32 countries, with IBM, Palantir and Cisco supplying the technologies. Most surprisingly, ‘liberal democracies are major users of AI surveillance’, although autocratic and semi-autocratic countries are ‘more prone to abuse’ the system. Apart from China being a major supplier, there was also ‘considerable overlap’ between the Belt and Road Initiative and AI surveillance; 36 out of 86 BRI countries used such technology. ‘The most important factor determining whether governments will exploit this technology for repressive purposes is the quality of their governance—is there an existing pattern of human rights violations? Are there strong rule of law traditions and independent institutions of accountability?’
This brings us back to the Nepal Police’s smart policing ambitions. Is the institution independent enough that any surveillance practices will not be misused against political opponents and dissidents? Also, it is not just autocracies who abuse the system; the recent WhatsApp breaches in India, or Snowden’s revelations, tell us even the largest or the most advanced democracies in the world will use surveillance techniques on its citizens, especially if such citizens hold views contrary to the government’s expectations. The key question is, who decides where to draw the line?
What do you think?
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