By Nidhi Singh.

The 2017 judgement by a 9 judge bench in the case of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy vs. Union of India successfully cemented the Right to Privacy for citizens under Article 21 of the Constitution. The judgement was a turning point in the debate on the right to privacy which has been raised in court time and again starting from the 1964 judgement in the case of Kharak Singh vs. State of UP.

However, this was not the end of the conversation on the right to privacy, the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Amber Tickoo vs Government of NCT of Delhi reignited the debate which surrounds the right to privacy, specifically the right to privacy of minors.

The Amber Tickoo case

In September 2017, following the murder of a 4-year-old at Ryan International School, Delhi education minister Manish Sisodia made the decision to install CCTV cameras in every Delhi government school. These cameras would cover not only the hallways and the common areas but also the classrooms. Further, in December of the same year it was decided that the feed from these cameras would be made available online for the parents to access.

In July 2019, a Delhi government school in Lajpat Nagar became the first school fully equipped with CCTV cameras in all classrooms. According to the government the next step would be to provide the parents access to the live feed through a mobile app which they can access using a password.

These decisions of the Delhi government were challenged before the Supreme Court though a public interest litigation in the Amber Tickoo case. The petitioners argued that the installation of these cameras would result in an infringement of the right to privacy ensured in the Puttaswamy judgement. They also argued that making the live feed of students available online would jeopardize the safety and security of the students.

The Supreme Court dismissed the petition without granting any interim relief, and disposed of the case. Consequently, the implementation of the programme will see almost 1000 schools across Delhi equipped with CCTV camera’s by November.

Right to privacy in public spaces

The Puttaswamy judgement while broadly dealing with the issue of the right to privacy, extended the right to privacy of individuals to the public space.

“If the reason for protecting privacy is the dignity of the individual, the rationale for its existence does not cease merely because the individual has to interact with others in the public arena. The extent to which an individual expects privacy in a public street may be different from that which she expects in the sanctity of the home. Yet if dignity is the underlying feature, the basis of recognising the right to privacy is not denuded in public spaces… Privacy attaches to the person and not to the place where it is associated.”

The court thus acknowledges that acts done by individuals in public spaces are not necessarily public in nature, and that individuals would still be guaranteed the right to privacy in such situations.

However, in this case, the right is not being extended to minors. In his interview, Akshay Marathe, a member of Delhi government’s Dialogue & Development Commission Task force on school education argues that classrooms cannot be considered to be private by ‘any stretch of imagination’. Following the principle laid down in the Puttaswamy judgement, despite classrooms being a public space, children still possess a right to privacy, since the right is attached to their person and not the space, they are in. The installation of CCTV cameras in classrooms would thus ignore these rights and appears to imply that minors do not possess the same right to privacy as adults.

CCTV cameras in schools

The government has supported its decision to install security cameras inside classrooms for many reasons. The decision was made in response to incidents of violence in schools such as the assault of a 4-year-old girl . However, in addition to assuaging safety concerns, the government also states that having access to the live feeds from these cameras would bring down delinquency and truancy complaints for children. This measure is also meant to bolster the confidence of parents in the quality of education being imparted to the students as they would personally be able to judge the performance of the teachers via the live feed.

This experiment with CCTV cameras in school is not a novel concept. Several other jurisdictions have already implemented similar strategies in schools from equipping teachers with two-way radios, to installing CCTV cameras in schools, even in changing rooms. Almost 90% of secondary schools in the UK are now equipped with security cameras, and this constant surveillance has been criticized by many, including the teachers. Research suggests that pupils in UK are monitored as frequently as inmates in prisons and customers at an airport.

study conducted on CCTV surveillance of primary school children in Israel also concludes that the cameras lead to a growing fear in the children that they were constantly being recorded everywhere. The study also revealed a tension between the normalisation of school surveillance, but increased resistance to other surveillance among children which could eventually cause behavioural problems in the children outside of school.

In addition to the previous problems faced in the implementation of CCTV systems in schools, the Delhi government also faces increased concerns about the responsibility of the government towards the children, as there are no laws which govern the use of CCTV cameras in schools in India. The question of parental access to feeds is also in question as the present digital infrastructure may not be able to support this venture, and the government has given no answers on how it intends to validate the identity of the parents on the smartphone app.

Rights of minors

The rights of minors differ in aspect and scope from the rights provided to adult citizens of a state. As a vulnerable group of society, the state has chosen to prioritise security concerns over the right to privacy of children. While the installation of CCTV cameras in Delhi government schools is in the limelight now, this is by no means the only policy of such a nature to be implemented in the country. A bench at the Madras High Court recently directed the Tamil Nadu transport commissioner to issue orders mandating the installation of CCTV cameras and GPS in all school buses. Schools in Gurugram are now also set to follow in the footsteps of the Delhi model where the district education officer has called for all government schools to install CCTV cameras. They also allow schools with a paucity of funds to seek additional grants for the installation of these cameras.

While the installation of the cameras has generated mixed reviews with parents being generally happy with the news and teachers apprehensive about the same, the move has ignored some large concerns relating to the scrutiny of minors. The livestreaming of the classroom feeds is one such issue, due to the enormous scale of the process, it will be impossible to ensure the safety of this feed. The feed can be accessed though a mobile app and a password, which makes it vulnerable to leaks. There has also been no research done to investigate the effect of such constant scrutiny on children and teachers.

To sum up, the right to privacy of children is often considered subjugated to other concerns, this can most accurately be seen in the statement by CM Kejriwal which states that “There will be no privacy breach, children go to school for education, to learn discipline and become good citizens of the country… they do not go there for anything private”. It also fully ignores the question of illegal access to these live-feeds by unauthorized parties arguing that “Hypothetically even if one does get access, he will only see 40 kids studying. Nothing more can be obtained out of it.”

The decision to install CCTV cameras in schools ultimately made to benefit students and bolster the security in schools following recent events. However, the move to live-stream feeds from these classrooms has come under considerable scrutiny, with the Government School Teachers Association protesting the same. Following the refusal of the Supreme Court to intervene on the matter, Delhi schools are set to implement the policy, with other places following suit.

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This article was first published on CCG-NLUD’s blog, its been cross-posted with prior permission.