Supreme Court considers installation of CCTV units in courts – but will it regulate what happens next?

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard a petition seeking directions to ensure audio-visual recording of the proceedings in trial courts. The reasoning behind the request was that recording proceedings would enhance the fairness of trials. The Supreme Court decided to limit the question to whether CCTV (video only) cameras may be installed at various locations in the courts, in order to better serve security and administrative needs.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has discussed the use of CCTV cameras for security and other purposes. However, there is also no comprehensive law that deals with the use of CCTV cameras and related security and privacy issues.

In the present case, the Court initially noted that multiple courts, including the courts in Gurgaon have undertaken such efforts in the past. The Court then requested the additional solicitor general and a senior advocate present in the court as amicus to visit the courts in Gurgaon, and report on the matter within four weeks. It stated that once the report is received, it will consider directing installation of CCTV (video only) cameras at district courts in various states. It has also indicated that any recordings made by these CCTV cameras will not be available to the public, and will be retained for specified periods of time only.

The Court has considered the use of CCTV cameras in public places in previous cases. In Deputy Inspector General of Police and Anr. v. S. Samuthiram, a case regarding eve-teasing / sexual harassment, the Court took cognizance of such cases and the need for prevention mechanisms. Amongst other things, it directed all states and union territories to install CCTV cameras in public places. The CCTV cameras were to be positioned such that they act as a deterrent to potential offenders, and if an offence was committed, the offenders would be caught / identified.

In Dilip K. Basu v. State of West Bengal and Ors, the Court considered the request of the amicus, and directed state governments to: (a) take steps to install CCTV cameras in all the prisons in their respective states, within a period of one year from the date of the order (but not later than two years), and (b) consider installation of CCTV cameras in police stations in a phased manner depending upon the incidents of human rights violation reported in such stations.

State governments have also, in various instances, directed the installation of CCTV cameras in public places. In Tamil Nadu, the state government has directed that CCTV cameras must be installed in every public building. The cameras must be installed in accordance with the recommendations of the local police officers. Such recommendations may be made for purposes such as ensuring public order or controlling crimes and the reasons for the recommendation must be recorded in writing.

In Chandigarh, the local government released a set of draft rules meant to regulate mobile app-based transport aggregators (such as Uber and Ola). Among other things, these draft rules require that every taxi must install a CCTV unit to monitor activities inside the taxi in real time. The rules suggest that the video feed from the CCTV cameras should be linked to a control room established by the aggregator.

The above are some examples of courts and government bodies providing for installation and use of CCTV cameras and video recordings. There is a common trend among them – the orders and rules only deal with when and where the units are to be installed, and used. They do not, however, provide a procedural / regulatory mechanism to ensure proper, lawful use of such cameras and associated video recordings.

Maintenance of law and order, security, deterrence of criminal activity, and identification of offenders, are all important issues, and appropriate means should be adopted to provide for the same. At the same time, there needs to be a balance between such means, and individual rights, such as the right to privacy. These laws and orders largely deal with installation and use of CCTV cameras in public places, where some may argue that an individual does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, reports suggest there is misuse of CCTV cameras, especially where installed in customer heavy locations such as retail outlets.

Such misuse could be dealt with under some existing provisions of laws such as the Information Technology Act, 2000 – for example under the provision which criminalizes capturing of images or videos of an individual’s private parts, or the data protection rules. However, these laws are of limited applicability, and deal mostly with sensitive personal information, and images or videos of a private / sexual nature. We do not currently have a comprehensive law that deals with  surveillance equipment and its use in public spaces. Although some states such as Tamil Nadu provide that CCTV cameras must be installed based on police recommendations, there is no general prohibition or restriction on their installation and use. Further, there are no specific restrictions on the collection, use, retention, or transfer of any video recordings, or information that is derived from such recordings. There is no mechanism put in place to deal with a situation where an individual’s data is shared without authorization.

Certain authorities within the country appear to have recognized this gap, and taken some steps towards addressing these issues. In Maharashtra, the local municipal corporation in Navi Mumbai has implemented a CCTV surveillance system to help the local police maintain law and order. The corporation has issued a ‘voluntary code of conduct’ in relation to all surveillance camera systems in public and private places. This document attempts to “provide a framework to all the stakeholders so that there is proportionality and transparency in their use of surveillance”. Among other things, it provides that (i) the use of a surveillance system must always be for a legitimate and specified purpose; (ii) establishments must be transparent about the use of CCTV cameras on their premises; and (iii) access to the video feed will be limited and subject to clearly defined rules on persons who can gain access and purposes for which access may be gained.

Even a limited framework such as this, goes a long way towards ensuring transparency and protection of individual rights and freedoms. Perhaps the Supreme Court will provide more nuanced directions, not only on the installation of CCTV cameras, but also on the use of associated video recordings when the matter is next brought up.

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