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Honey, I’m watching the kids

As parents and schools turn to sophisticated surveillance technology to keep tabs on children, is the hunt for complete safety eroding all privacy? Has the CCTV camera become both nanny and police?

A growing tribe of parents is using technology to oversee their child’s well-being, particularly during the hours they’re away from parental supervision.
A growing tribe of parents is using technology to oversee their child’s well-being, particularly during the hours they’re away from parental supervision.

Siddharth and Amrita Saha sit with their friends in the living room of their apartment in Gurugram, while their eight-month-old son sleeps peacefully in his room, an iPad with the Cloud Baby Monitor app glowing by his side. Both parents have their phones at hand, the same app open, allowing them to check intermittently on their child.

Rohit Pasricha, a businessman in Delhi, knows exactly where Meher, his four-year-old daughter, is at all times through her GPS-enabled school ID card. She goes to the MADE EASY preschool in Chattarpur, in south-west Delhi, where every student must wear this ID card. Again, their location details are available via an app. This enables Pasricha to track Meher’s movements from the moment she leaves the house to when she reaches school.

A growing tribe of parents is using technology to oversee their child’s well-being, particularly during the hours they’re away from parental supervision. The nuclear family model results in much of the traditional role of the grandparent or aunt being taken over by strangers, whether agency-approved nannies or carers at preschools. This interaction with “familiar strangers" has led to a greater reliance on surveillance technology. In most upper-middle-class homes in urban India, there is now a nanny and a nanny camera.

Yet there is a fine line between watching over one’s children and invading their privacy, and it is a line that blurs easily.

It was in 2012 that Parliament passed the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (Pocso Act) to protect children against sexual exploitation and abuse and make the judicial process more child-friendly. Among the measures listed was CCTV-monitoring in school premises. More recently, on 17 January, following a spate of crimes in the National Capital Region, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that CCTV cameras would be installed in government school classrooms and that parents could access the real-time feed.

But when cameras move out of the home and enter the public domain, so does the footage. Nupur Dhingra Paiva, child psychologist and author of Love And Rage: The Inner Worlds Of Children, asks some pertinent questions: “Who is really being watched? And who is watching? Where are these feeds being taped and saved? Who has access to them? What might they be used for?"

What is certain is that there can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to how adults watch over children— it has to be dependent on age, individual personalities and situations. A line should be drawn between safety and control. “Temperamentally, children are different," says Paiva. “There are those who are relaxed and happy-go-lucky, who couldn’t care less about such monitoring. Others tend to be very anxious and constantly feel judged. Such children could feel a huge amount of pressure knowing they were being watched."

A board outside a school in Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The issue becomes more complicated as children grow older because as teenagers, they are neither adults nor children. They are increasingly cognizant of their surroundings—and the right to privacy. According to Paiva, they go “very quickly from being needy to not wanting you around".

The interaction between hyper-vigilant parents and teenage children typically leads to conflict because, Paiva says, a lot of teenage aggression is about them trying to make some space for themselves. While younger children, up to the age of 4-5, might feel reassured that someone is watching them, “a 14- or 15-year-old will be rebellious and will slam the door on your face. They don’t want you watching them."

This idea of surveillance through electronic devices brings to mind George Orwell’s 1949 classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book that provided the blueprint for a dystopian surveillance state for generations of film-makers and science fiction writers. Versions of digital dystopia are visualised in the Netflix TV series Black Mirror. An alarming episode titled Arkangel in season 4 specifically deals with the idea of parental surveillance, taking viewers down a frightening rabbit hole. The best science fiction has always reflected the anxieties of the times we live in. Now, the “big eye in the sky" has replaced the idea of little green men from distant planets.

“Kids now have more than one set of eyes watching them," adds Paiva. “There is the teacher and then there is this disembodied figure that could watch you from elsewhere. It’s the stuff of paranoia, really."

Take, for example, the case of the Mahatma Gandhi Centennial Sindhu High School in Nagpur and its school surveillance experiment, captured by film-maker Avinash Deshpande in his 2005 documentary The Great Indian School Show. This was an ordinary school, with one exception—it had over 200 CCTV cameras placed across rooms, corridors, playgrounds and stairwells. There were PA systems in every classroom. The CCTV screens and audio controls were operated by the principal, Deepak Bajaj. He flipped one switch after the next, addressing classes, questioning teachers, sending out messages. Students would stand up the moment his voice echoed over the PA system. They would leave classrooms with their hands raised in a salute directed at the camera near the door. According to the principal, this was a system designed to create order and discipline, transforming students into responsible citizens of tomorrow. Today, for better or for worse, we can consider Bajaj a man ahead of his times.

Most private schools have installed CCTVs to monitor important areas. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The schools have eyes

The increasing vigilance among parents, teachers and school authorities is fuelled partially by reports of crimes against children, whether through negligence or premeditation. The five-year-old boy who died after falling into a vat of sambhar at a primary school in Telangana in December 2016; the seven-year-old student who was murdered at a private school in Gurugram on 8 September; the five-year-old who was raped in east Delhi soon after. These are tragedies that fuelled anxiety. In the aftermath, school property has been vandalized, morchas have been led by parents, teachers and activists, and political promises have been made to tighten hiring guidelines and improve safety on school premises. Last year, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) announced a new set of security guidelines for affiliate schools, mandating that they install CCTV cameras and ensure these remain functional.

Aam Aadmi Party member Atishi Marlena, adviser to deputy CM Manish Sisodia, believes Kejriwal’s move to introduce CCTVs in government schools will combat the spike in crimes against children in Delhi over the last few years. “Our proposal does not involve any central monitoring of any kind. There is no ‘Big Brother’-like arrangement," she says. “All it says is that a parent should have access to what’s happening inside their children’s classroom and there should be a sense of security. We will cover all Delhi government schools, which number more than a thousand. The cabinet has passed the proposal, an RFP (request for proposal) has been drawn up. In the next stage, a tender will be opened. All this is still under process. This programme is likely to be implemented by the next (2018-19) academic session."

While no one may doubt the motive, how feasible is the execution? Some students are the first members of their family to receive an education. Their parents are often in blue-collar jobs, with little or no notion of what surveillance means, or its wider implications.

India is trailing other countries, however, when it comes to surveillance technology. American public schools have not been the same since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. More recently, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida has meant even more stringent measures are in place. Schools have increased surveillance beyond the standard CCTV cameras. GPS-enabled tracking programs (typically used to track terrorists) allow law enforcement and emergency crews to map the layout of school buildings. There is increased police presence around schools, as well as active shooter drills. A few weeks ago, a drill at a high school in Alaska even had sounds of real gunfire, to impress upon children how “real" the threat was.

Even in the UK, surveillance is a top priority for school authorities. In November, Summerhill School in the West Midlands installed cameras in school toilets to combat what the authorities deemed “disappointing behaviour". Although they were not aimed directly at cubicles or urinals, it led to a backlash from both students and parents. Earlier in the year, two secondary schools in the UK launched a pilot project where teachers would wear body cameras and film incidents that caused disorder in the classroom in order to examine and resolve them effectively.

In India, while the whys and hows are still under debate, security surveillance manufacturers are working hard to keep pace with the growing demand. CCTVs have become a security prerequisite in most private schools. “There has been a surge in demand for CCTVs and other surveillance solutions from both government and public schools," says Arvind Bali, CEO, Videocon WallCam, Videocon’s security and surveillance brand, which was launched last year. “Some of the elite schools have high-definition CCTV cameras in every classroom along with microphones. They want to monitor teachers as well."

The monitoring is not restricted to classrooms. Some Videocon WallCam cameras provide a bird’s-eye view of the campus. Others monitor the periphery of a school. Cameras are also being installed in school buses; some double up as car number-plate readers. “These mobile cameras can withstand bumpy rides, monitor the environment inside a school bus and also see how drivers are driving," explains Bali.

Recordings on the latest CCTV cameras are saved either on an inbuilt SD card or in a control room at schools. Other options include storage on an NVR (a network video recorder) or DVR (digital video recorder). Video that gets captured on NVRs can be accessed from anywhere since the cameras are connected to the internet. Some cameras are also programmed to send alerts to security officers or control room operators (CROs) if they are tampered with, sense unusual movement, or a rise in the decibel levels inside classrooms.

Some manufacturers say the more vital point of concern should be the CRO—the person monitoring these cameras. “It’s very important to have trained CROs," says Yogesh B. Dutta, chief operating officer, CP PLUS, one of the country’s leading security and surveillance solution providers. “His or her ignorance on how to handle the footage could become the threat. In 60-70% cases, most of the CCTV control centres are being managed by normal security guards, who sit before the screens and watch what’s happening. They have no idea how to manage the recordings." CP PLUS has a training programme for security guards on managing both the control room and the data.

CCTV cameras on display at a shop on Lamington Road, Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha chowdhury/Mint

Following the digital breadcrumbs

The Greek monster Argus Panoptes, a terrible all-seeing giant with 100 eyes, seems an apt poster child for this age of watchmen. Across the world, new legislation and watchdog groups are working to curtail surveillance and protect the civil liberties of children. In India, this is a far more contentious issue, as we lack sufficient safeguards for individual privacy or data protection. According to Section 69 of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008, the Central government or its authorized officers are allowed to intercept, monitor or decrypt information on any computer resource when there is a threat to public order or against the interest of sovereignty and integrity of the country, among other things.

CCTV monitoring is only one part of the larger surveillance story, as numerous apps in the market allow parents and teachers to track their children’s digital footprint. From PocketFinder, a GPS-tracking app with real-time alerts and a 60-day location history, to MamaBear, which offers a range of features, like collating updates on children’s activity on social media and text messaging, as well as sending out a speeding alert if your child drives faster than the speed limit you have set. Mobicip is an internet filter which sets time limits for internet usage and allows four levels of age-appropriate access to websites based on a sophisticated filtering algorithm. eKAVACH, designed by Delhi-based start-up Certus Technologies, is a home-grown digital parenting app that offers, among other things, alerts and push notifications for boundary breaches as well as a healthy access limit for internet usage.

These “aids" enable a form of parenting in which Mother is always watching, and it’s bound to cause a backlash. “Children must definitely be educated about the dangers of the real and cyber world, but there is absolutely no excuse for spying," says Devi Kar, director of the Modern High School for Girls, Kolkata. She believes that this kind of over-monitoring distorts their personality. What is actually needed from both parents and teachers is the ability to relate to children’s digital identities, be sensitive to their needs, and inculcate a sense of discipline.

Debarati Halder, a legal scholar, advocate and managing director of the Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling, Ahmedabad, says there has to be some parental guidance in the online space. But it should be a process of learning for both children and adults. “First and foremost, parents, children and institutions need to be aware of laws, cyber crimes and precautionary tips," she says. “Parental digital surveillance should not hamper the dignity of the children and their privacy, and depends upon his/her age and digital awareness and maturity." She believes parents, educators and caregivers need to act more like digital guides, not cyber-stalkers. She believes close surveillance becomes necessary only when the child’s offline and online behaviour indicates that he or she may be a victim of cyber crimes, or even a perpetrator.

Residents of Gurugram at a candlelight march last year to demand justice for the murder of a Ryan International School student. Photo: Hindustan Times

Leave the children alone

“A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all." This powerful statement was made by Edward Snowden in a broadcast by Britain’s Channel 4 in 2013, the year that marked the biggest disclosures of secret government surveillance programmes in the US and beyond. Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall, with its refrain, “Teachers, leave them kids alone", could be appropriated as an anthem for today as ideas of watching, monitoring and control of children become legitimate fears in the public discourse.

Children born in the pre-internet era had secret diaries where they would store their thoughts. They would write poems on teenage angst, make lists of their new-found crushes on old-school word processors. These were harmless adventures born of lazy summer afternoons. Today’s equivalent features adolescents hunched possessively over their phones, posting a non-deletable trail of photographs and messages, trawling the internet for partners during the summer holidays, or obsessively stalking their cute neighbour on Instagram.

Aroti Akash Tugnait, a Gurugram-based management professional and mother of two, believes there is already too much digital surveillance. “I don’t think it is right that I should be able to look at my children all day long," says Tugnait, whose two sons are aged 7 and 10. “While it still would make sense if they were really young and their physical safety was more of an issue, nursery upwards it’s important that kids have time on their own." Her sons go to the Shikshantar School in Gurugram, which has an open campus, with CCTV cameras at important intersections, but not in classrooms. She wouldn’t have it otherwise.

The handling of CCTV footage by the control room operator (CRO) calls for proper training. Photo: iStockphoto

Every child needs space away from adult eyes to develop emotionally and time when they are not being watched, even if it is to do something as banal as flipping channels or staring at nothing. While constant supervision is the knee-jerk solution for many issues, not all parents or principals are on board with an intensive surveillance programme.

“Although it is wise to keep an eye on children in general, I have this innate revulsion of parents and school authorities trying to watch over their children round the clock," says Devi Kar. “The whole atmosphere becomes that of a police state. Ideally, children should not grow up in fear. They must learn to do the right thing because it is right."

This sentiment is shared by Ashok Pandey, principal of the Ahlcon International School in Mayur Vihar, Delhi. “A student or teacher’s behaviour cannot be deterred by technology. I think one has to develop a culture of discipline, relationship and safety and CCTV cameras will do none of these. That has to come from the parents and the teachers."

Children have always been resilient and adaptable. As monitoring becomes more stringent, they will, in all probability, devise creative ways to escape apps and hide from CCTV cameras. As a result, surveillance will always be an incomplete answer. There are no easy solutions. Maybe the answer lies with parents and the values they instil in their offspring, or with the government and lawmakers who put systems in place to protect the young. Clearly, what is important is creating a relationship between children and adults that is a two-way street of trust rather than a black mirror to reality.

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