I see youInstalling CCTV cameras on the streets demands accountability
Jutting out from traffic poles and lining major public walkways, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras have been sprouting across the country. According to Nepal Police records, the government has installed around 2,772 CCTVs, of which 474 are in the Kathmandu Valley—more than the country has ever seen before. The stated goal of the system, which received top priority following a Community-Police Partnership in late October, is to ‘prevent crime and catch criminals’. And they claim that it has yielded successful results. According to the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division (MTPD), a total of 4,571 traffic rule violators were fined with assistance provided by CCTV footage last month. But before the government embarked on its foray into mass video surveillance through the installation of its very own ‘all-seeing-eye’, they have fallen short on some crucial prerequisites.
While the number of installed cameras has increased significantly, the monitoring mechanisms haven’t changed. All the recorded footage (around 66,528 hours of footage collected from each camera on a daily basis) travels to only two control rooms based at the MTPD and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s Office in Ranipokhari, Kathmandu. The control rooms are also collectively operated by only eight officers at any given time—who are also expected to juggle various other tasks including responding to more than 200 distress calls on a daily basis—at any given time. In addition to human resources-related shortcomings, little was done to equip the departments privy to its development with adequate technological resources to manage the gathered data. As highlighted by Pushkar Karki, an Additional Inspector General of Police who also heads the Crime Investigation Department, the control room has not been able to fully capitalise on the recorded footage because it lacks advanced technological facilities. If the aim is really to develop a ‘smart’ video-surveillance system, the state must also invest in proper technological infrastructure for the Police Department.
No targeted policies for this monitoring system were devised either, leaving ample room for speculation over how the information would be used and whether or not citizens’ rights to privacy would be respected in the process. Blindfaith in the stated intentions of the surveillance campaign is far from enough, especially for a government that has unapologetically exercised repressive surveillance and censorial tendencies in the past. This assurance to the public—in the form of a fully transparent piece of legislation that details the intentions, uses and protection mechanisms behind the campaign—is a vital step.
The only piece of legislation that has anything to do with CCTV camera installation is the ‘CCTV Camera Installation and Operation Procedure 2015’, which outlines mandatory provisions regarding the installation of cameras in private businesses and government offices—including the need for private businesses to explain where cameras have been installed and for what purposes in order to ensure that the recorded information will not be misused. It seems illogical that the government doesn’t hold itself to the same standard.
Mere installation is not enough. Without equipping control rooms with the adequate technology and human resources required for them to carry out their monitoring functions, and in the absence of proper legislation to safeguard citizens’ rights, the system’s intended efficacy cannot be achieved. The state must meet these basic prerequisites—we’re watching it too.