Sunday, April 12, 2015

Someone is watching you

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 12, 2015

Big Brother is watching you. Photo: V. Ganesan

Should we be worried or is this just paranoia? The recent uproar caused by Union Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani spotting a closed circuit television (CCTV) camera allegedly pointing toward the women’s changing room in a store in Goa raises many questions. While the police will hopefully figure out how a camera placed for store surveillance recorded women trying out clothes as has been alleged, the incident draws attention to larger questions about surveillance and privacy.

So even as CCTV cameras proliferate in our cities, we have to ask how what they record is being used. To catch shoplifters, all big stores justify having surveillance cameras. To catch criminals and law-breakers, and to provide “security” to law-abiding citizens, we have cameras on the street, in offices, in buildings, in elevators, in public places, at traffic signals, at toll booths, in railway stations, at airports, in trains and in buses — virtually everywhere. People even have them in their homes. But none of us care to ask what happens to the footage recorded by these cameras, who views it and whether that footage is secure. In other words, is the technology designed to enhance security really secure or is it open to misuse.
We know now that there are an increasing number of reported instances where footage from CCTV cameras placed in public places, such as the Delhi Metro for instance, has been uploaded on the Internet without the knowledge or the permission of the people depicted in it. The Information Technology (IT) Act has provisions to deal with such misuse but it has failed to act as a deterrent. The watchful eye behind the camera can also be a voyeur and women, who are most often the subject of such misuse, really have no way to protect themselves.

While CCTV cameras are worrisome, there is another kind of surveillance that is, perhaps, even more menacing for women. Today millions of people have cameras and recording devices on their phones. This has been a positive development but it also has serious negative fallouts.

In terms of empowering women, there are dozens of examples from across India where something as simple as a mobile phone has changed women’s lives. In Dharavi, the enormous urban poor settlement in the heart of Mumbai, women have been trained by a local non-governmental organisation to record and report instances of violence against women by using their cell phones. In Bundelkhand, U.P., rural women journalists are using phones to record and report from areas that the mainstream would never bother to cover, to tell stories that would otherwise remain untold. These reports are printed in the different editions of their newspaper Khabar Lahariya and distributed throughout the region. Young women in our cities use the phone literally as a safety device. They speak on it to show they are connected to a person when alone in a taxi or a train. They take pictures of taxi drivers or potential harassers. So a simple technology like the mobile phone has made a difference to the lives of many women.

But there is also the downside. This very phone in the hands of a man can become the instrument of harassment. Women are targeted with unsolicited and sexist text messages. Men are known to photograph and film unsuspecting women and use that footage as “revenge porn” to blackmail them. Not long ago, on a flight from Delhi to Guwahati, two men were caught filming a woman passenger and an airhostess. The woman noticed what they were doing, used her phone to photograph them and uploaded the pictures on social media to name and shame them. But not every woman has the courage or presence of mind to respond like this. The majority get scared, intimidated and depressed if they are subjected to such voyeurism.
A report by the Association for Progressive Communication (APC) titled “How technology impacts women’s rights” (March 2015) discusses the gender perspective on technology. It points out, “People share images of women without their consent because they think women’s bodies and sexuality are shameful but also public property…The message is clear: privacy rights do not extend to women.”

Of course, in India the concept of “privacy” is not just gendered but also has a class angle. Only the privileged have access to a private space; for the majority all space is public. The only space that is private is what is in their heads. The majority of women and men living in our crowded cities, and even in the villages, are compelled to create the illusion of privacy in the absence of any physical private space.

Despite this, the recent incident in Goa ought to spark a serious debate on issues of privacy, on excessive surveillance, on laws that we need to protect the right of individuals to privacy and above all to understand that technology is not always gender neutral.


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