Centre for Internet & Society

Poor quality of footage, lack of maintenance and inadequate back-up reduce the gadgets’ deterrent value.

The article by Vivek Narayanan and R. Srinivasan was published in the Hindu on September 18, 2019. Pranav M.B. was quoted.

Last month, Sandeep (name changed), a cyclist, was hit by an ambulance on GST Road near the Madras Export Processing Zone (MEPZ) signal. He was rushed to hospital in the same ambulance. His hopes of finding out who hit him, via CCTV cameras, came crashing after he saw the poor quality of footage that was obtained to identify the vehicle.

“The police officers in Tambaram themselves told me that the quality of the CCTV cameras was poor and they were unable to trace the number,” said Mr. Sandeep.

While the police have been claiming a reduction in crime rates due to CCTV cameras in the city, residents and experts doubt if the equipment is indeed a deterrent, and want the police to install better quality cameras with the capacity to retain footage for a longer period, and to maintain the devices, too.

Extensive Coverage

Several high profile cases such as the 2016 Swathi murder case drove law enforcers to increase CCTV coverage of the city. Now, there are over 2 lakh cameras covering all of Chennai, its alleys and its fringes.

Cameras have also been installed at every major junction and at street corners. In many cases, they are linked to the control room of the nearest police station.

According to the police, there is one CCTV camera for every 50 m. They are meant to help the police crack cases and nab the accused. “Some DVRs (digital video recorders) are also in the house or premises of the sponsors. This is for safety purposes,” said a police officer.

The unique nature of the Traffic Police’s ‘third eye campaign’ is the involvement of the public, too. Apart from the police, MPs and MLAs, many resident welfare associations have also donated resources for the installation of CCTV cameras.

Residents, however, expressed concern. S. Kumara Raja, vice president, Annai Indira Nagar Residents Welfare Association said: “Though many CCTVs cameras are found on the street, it isn’t clear if they are working or not. We also don’t know if anyone is maintaining the cameras.”

P. Saravanakumar, founder of the South Madipakkam Residents’ Welfare Association, said that the equipment is not connected with the police control room and the data remains with those who have installed the CCTV system.

V. N. Subramaniyan, president, Mylapore Residents Welfare Association, felt that cameras installed on private properties were working properly.

“Cameras are obtained from private persons as a charitable activity, so the quality can be challenged. The police should give the maintenance of CCTV cameras to private companies. There should be proper back-up and monitoring,” he pointed out.

While the equipment is considered important for gathering evidence, policemen themselves complain that the quality of the footage from many cameras is poor.

“We cannot zoom into the footage obtained from every camera involved. Most of them are 1 or 2 megapixel cameras and the image is often blurred. Only in a few places do we find powerful cameras,” said a policeman.

'Not a deterrent'

Pranav M. B., researcher, Centre for Internet and Society, said that as according to global studies, CCTV cameras are not useful as deterrents. “But they come in handy for providing evidence after a crime,” said Mr. Pranav.

Though advanced cameras can provide footage with more clarity, it’s cost intensive to maintain them. “For deterrence, one need not invest in high-end cameras — quality street lights are sufficient. We cannot expect the perpetrator of a crime to make a decision over whether to commit a crime or not after looking at the camera,” he added.

However, there is a 30% higher chance of identifying an accused when a camera is deployed, than without. “Nevertheless, like any other technology or method, it is not entirely foolproof,” Mr. Pranav said.

Police officers disagree on the subject of CCTV systems not serving as deterrents. “From January to June 2018, a total of 258 chain snatching incidents were reported, but during the same period this year, the number plummeted to 137 — a fall of nearly 50%,” said a senior police officer.

'Needs improvement'

Similarly, the police claim that, this year, public nuisance cases have gone down by 41%, and burglary cases by 17%, compared with last year. Police officers agreed that the quality of some cameras needs to be improved.

“Initially, we did not know the type of quality [of cameras] needed. So, we fixed 1 and 2 megapixel cameras. Now, we are installing 4 megapixel cameras and have better clarity. Besides, we are now categorising the number and type of cameras available in different parts of the city, and will change the older ones,” said a senior police officer.

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