In safe hands?

Published April 15, 2019
The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.
The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.

QUETTA is bleeding once again. Days after a leading newspaper reported that the TTP’s footprint had increased across Balochistan, a blast at a vegetable market took the lives of at least 20 people including Hazara vegetable vendors, security personnel, and others present at the Hazarganji sabzi mandi in Quetta. Another blast in Chaman on the same day killed two people and injured at least 10 others.

The attack in Hazarganji, and the resulting loss of life, is particularly troubling. In doing some of my research in Quetta, I was stunned by the scale of arrangements that security agencies make just to enable Hazara vegetable vendors to buy their fruit and vegetables from the city’s wholesale market. This movement is an elaborate performance: Hazara vegetable vendors form a convoy, which heads to the sabzi mandi accompanied by police and paramilitary escorts. Once they reach the market, security personnel take their positions and restrict access for the entire duration that Hazara vendors are present in the vicinity.

Stocking up on potatoes is thus a militarised experience for Quetta’s Hazara vegetable sellers. In this context, an IED placed inside a sack of potatoes shows an outright failure of state security agencies. Minister Ziaullah Langove may think otherwise, but the circumstances of this attack make it clear that Hazara vegetable vendors were the intended targeted.

The immediate aftermath of this attack included demands for more CCTV cameras and better surveillance in and around Quetta. Quetta Safe City, a multibillion-rupee project that has remained on top of Balochistan’s P&D priorities for years, has recently slowed down, and these violent incidents have brought it back into focus. Representatives of security agencies argue that CCTV cameras facilitate both surveillance and investigation, and without working equipment, both are hindered, and identifying and capturing criminals becomes harder.

The clamour for invasive surveillance technologies like CCTV cameras should be checked and discussed by citizens.

There can be no doubt that effective surveillance strategies are one way to curb incidents of sectarian terrorism. In that vein, the Quetta Safe City project was seen as a groundbreaking initiative. However, before we take such claims about surveillance and its role in curbing criminal activity at face value, what about the CCTV cameras and other surveillance equipment that we do have in several of our cities? How can these arrangements go wrong? After all, most of our cities have had some form of CCTV camera surveillance for years.

There are multiple implications of having a digitally connected surveillance system that we need to think through. Readers can recall recent incidents where vigilantes gained access to CCTV networks and circulated several images from those feeds. The images showed couples driving or parked in various areas of the city; faces were clearly visible in some cases, as were the number plates of vehicles that were captured on camera. The vehicles’ registration information made it possible to immediately trace both the owner of the vehicle and a registered address — lives were therefore put at risk, ironically due to leaks from publicly funded surveillance infrastructure.

Two problems immediately assume prominence here. The first is privacy: how far are we willing to allow the government into our lives for the sake of security? Have we exhausted all other options for an effective security plan that curbs crime and terrorism? A car, like a house, is private space. Barring special circumstances, even police officials would require adequate judicial oversight and permission to search a private vehicle. The clamour for invasive surveillance technologies like CCTV cameras should therefore be checked and discussed by citizens before it is implemented on a larger scale.

The second problem is the inherently double-edged nature of surveillance measures like CCTV cameras. How do we know who gets to access these feeds, and who can see these images? Photos of couples, ostensibly leaked from existing safe city CCTV networks, show that we are operating without clearly defined access permission and security procedures. If vigilantes can use the system to leak photos of couples, what will stop militant sympathisers from using these same systems to make their next attack even deadlier? No reasonable person can deny the existence of black sheep within our security agencies. How do we keep these surveillance networks protected from those who may operate wearing uniforms with the national flag on their shoulders?

The second conversation that we critically need, therefore, needs to finalise a formal, publicly acceptable protocol for access and security before large-scale implementation of projects like CCTV cameras. Only designated officials may access camera feeds, for example, and under no circumstances must identifiable information from these networks enter the public domain.

Even after we come up with adequate frameworks for privacy and data security, the biggest question remains: have we run out of choices that we are compelled to put our privacy at risk? Is there no other way to curb sectarian terrorism in cities like Quetta?

Surveillance and the threat of punishment have rarely stopped sectarian militants from wreaking havoc. The narrative, and the commitment of militant leaders to that narrative, is too strong to be deterred by police action or equipment like CCTV cameras. Surveillance methods may facilitate the police in investigating certain crimes, but whether or not they will reduce the incidence of such crimes remains debatable. Instead, they appear to be a convenient escape for security agencies in the face of mounting difficulties and pressures to perform.

In the meantime, while we discuss CCTV cameras, privacy, and security, we keep failing on the bigger ideological issues that directly create sectarian militancy. Notorious militants receive ‘shields’ from military commanders and are set free under the garb of integration. Banned organisations’ members roam around and operate with impunity, and there appears to be no serious effort to prosecute and punish the ideological godfathers of sectarian violence.

After all, will CCTV cameras protect us from ourselves?

The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.

Twitter: @faizaanq

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2019



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