Needed: Norms on CCTV Usage in Public Spots

In the absence of clear privacy laws in India, CCTV cameras could be a double-edged sword.

3 min read

Big Brother Is ‘Peeping’

Wherever you go––school, college, office, mall, bank, pub, restaurant, traffic signal––Big Brother watches you. And you’re watched all day, every day.

Omnipresent surveillance does act as a deterrent against crime and assists law enforcement, but if abused it can invade individual privacy.

The recent Fabindia VoyeurCam row suggests that the misuse of CCTV cameras may be rampant. Union Human Resource Minister Smriti Irani filed a complaint that a CCTV camera had been placed so as to film the changing room of Fabindia’s Goa outlet at Candolim.

In another case, the manager of a Van Heusen store in Delhi was held for filming an unsuspecting customer while she was in the store’s trial room.

In the absence of clear privacy laws in India, CCTV cameras could be a double-edged sword.
CCTV camera installed in a shopping mall. (Photo:

Precedent in the UK

In 2013, there was one surveillance camera for every 11 people in Britain. No surprises then, that the UK has had many more cases of abuse and voyeurism:

— In 2006, two CCTV camera operators in UK were jailed for spying on a woman in her home. The men were themselves caught on a camera monitoring a town council CCTV control room.

— In 2014, a 51-year-old CCTV operator was convicted of voyeurism in Northern Ireland. He pointed a camera at a woman’s apartment for 26 days. He was jailed for 8 months.

England and Wales now have a code of practice on the use of surveillance cameras by bodies such as local authorities and police forces.

The Indian Laws

Unfortunately, Indian laws still lag behind. In the absence of either a dedicated data protection law or a privacy law, matters related to electronic surveillance are usually covered under the IT Act, 2000. This was last amended in 2008.

The government needs to either introduce a new law on digital privacy or make extensive changes to the existing Act.

—Pawan Duggal, Cyber Law Expert

Under the IT Act, if a camera captures obscene images of a person and circulates such images without his/her consent, the offender is liable to be booked under section 66E. But, it is a toothless clause which makes the offence bailable with only three years of imprisonment and a fine of rupees two lakh. And, if the camera captures sexually explicit data, it becomes a non-bailable offence under 67A of the IT Act, which provides for five years of jail and a fine of rupees ten lakh.

The recent Fabindia scandal has exposed the reality of how voyeurism cases have multiplied on a daily basis. Police say the peeping toms could be tried under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Such cases of CCTV abuse can be tried under section 354 (outraging modesty of a woman) and section 294 (obscenity) of the IPC.

—TR Kakkar, Former Delhi Police Commissioner

While section 354 provides for an imprisonment term of two years, section 294 lets off an offender with a mere jail term of three months. Undoubtedly, lack of comprehensive legislation and stringent penalties have led to the rising number of snooping cases. Terming the Goa incident as a wake-up call, Duggal says the government should come up with appropriate guidelines.

Guidelines are required on the responsibilities of CCTV camera owners, as they are classified as intermediaries under the IT Act.

—Pawan Duggal, Cyber Law Expert

Also, lack of knowledge about the pitfalls of being under surveillance puts people at the risk of digital voyeurism. Senior lawyer Rebecca John advocates more practical solutions for dealing with the growing menace.

Measures like mandating the shops to declare usage of electronic surveillance could act as a deterrent.

—Rebecca John, Senior Lawyer

Video surveillance is clearly here to stay. It is crucial to build legal safeguards against abuse. In India, due to availability of ever-cheaper miniature cameras, the potential for abuse is great. Till the law kicks in the onus is on you – raise the alarm instantly if you think anything’s amiss.

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