Campus surveillance

25 Nov 2019


The writer is a project manager at Digital Rights Foundation.
The writer is a project manager at Digital Rights Foundation.

AS students mobilise for the Student Solidarity March, discontents on campuses across Pakistan are searing to the surface. Years of depoliticisation since the 1984 ban on student unions, unaffordable hostel spaces and restrictions on academic freedom have emerged as core concerns of the students’ movement. Encouragingly, the leadership of this burgeoning movement is distinguished by women raising issues of gender, discrimination and harassment.

For weeks, students at the University of Balochistan (UoB) have been protesting in the wake of revelations that CCTV camera footage was being used by university staff to sexually harass and blackmail students, particularly women. While the outrage regarding this blatant abuse of power is justified, it is important to question the very architecture of surveillance within institutions such as universities that allowed this to remain undetected for years, and the ways in which bodies on campus are regulated, particularly along gendered, class and ethnic lines. Technologies such as CCTV cameras and biometric attendance systems are being introduced on campuses to supplement traditional methods of monitoring as part of a larger disciplining project.

Security is repeatedly used as the ostensible aim for surveillance techniques and technologies. Female students’ movement is subject to constant monitoring and curtailed under the protectionist narrative of security, with discriminatory and infantilising curfew timings. This is exasperated by technology — women are told they need to cede privacy in order to gain protection. For instance, mobile apps promising to keep women safe in public spaces extract real-time location data and contacts of friends and family. For some women, sharing location data gives them a sense of security, yet these same technologies end up replicating the same repressive structures they are meant to provide protection from.

There is a continuum in the surveillance that women experience at home (their bodies, choices and movement constantly monitored) to public spaces (where institutions such as the state, university and workplace replicate the patriarchal gaze). This apparatus often assumes that the viewer is neutral and exists outside the structures of violence that mark our society — however, women have long known that those at the helm of this surveillance are products of these structures and often reproduce the same moral policing and violence. In the UoB case, the CCTV cameras took on the male gaze, which resulted in the moral policing and harassment of students.

The UoB scandal reveals a deeper malaise in how we treat young adults.

Universities are embracing technology to enhance discipline, security and control over campus life. Under the HEC’s ‘Smart Univer­sity’ project, 70 campuses in Pakistan have been equipped with CCTV cameras, with over 600 cameras in some universities that have capabilities such as ‘loitering detection’.

The ‘blanket WiFi coverage’ project will be accompanied by systems allowing access and monitoring of traffic on wireless networks. Surveillance is closely tied to the concept of control; students are more easily disciplined and controlled by making them knowable. Heavily surveilled campuses cannot be termed open spaces because they engender the anxiety of being watched, as opposed to enabling environments for experimentation and freedom of thought.

While updating campuses with technology is not inherently harmful, uncritical deployment as a sign of progress is shortsighted. In the absence of any policies protecting students, it has the potential of accumulating control. This is compounded by students having no say over the use of technology largely due to the systematic exclusion from decision-making through the ban on student unions.

Since the UoB scandal emerged, a spate of inquiries was promised. In addition to the FIA investigation, a provincial assembly committee was formed, and the matter taken up by the Senate Stan­ding Committee on Human Rights. However, the response has been cosmetic at best. The Balochistan High Court division bench has instruc­ted UoB to impose uniforms and instal a biometric system, resulting in a notification making uniforms mandatory for all students as a ‘counter-harassment’ measure. Some think that this move might be perceived as a misunderstanding of harassment and could be seen as indicative of how we locate the burden of harassment in victims and not perpetrators.

Despite the HEC’s ‘Policy Guidelines agai­nst Sexual Harassment in Institutions of Higher Learning’ having been in place for a few years, there is little compliance at the university level. When harassment is institutionalised and used by the staff itself as a tool of control, students are reluctant to come forward. Nevertheless, female students in Quet­ta are speaking out, protests and sit-ins led by women have taken place, despite the heavily controlled and militarised campus, demanding an end to systemic sexual harassment.

The writer is a project manager at Digital Rights Foundation.

Twitter: @shmyla

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2019