Privacy in Camera

Installation of cameras in public places for law enforcement is not a new phenomenon. However, it was Safe City Lahore Project and its successful implementation which made surveillance a point of public discourse. Investigation of the suicide attack of February 13, 2017 on Mall Road Lahore was the first major case which revealed the effectiveness of this system for Pakistani audience. This attack resulted in martyrdom of 14 Police officers and civilians including DIG Capt. Rtd Syed Ahmed Mobeen Zaidi and SSP Zahid Mahmood Gondal. Within 72 hours, the then Chief Minister Punjab addressed a press conference and unveiled result of investigations conducted by Police and other civil and military intelligence agencies. Key clues were found through cameras installed under the project and private cameras installed on Hall Road Lahore for private purposes by businessmen.

This success was hauled by all and according to some reports by camera manufacturers, this resulted in at least 300% increase in import of CCTV cameras in country since 2017. All provincial governments acknowledged large scale cameras installation as an important tool to prevent terrorism. Moreover,  Safe cities projects were started in Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta and Gwadar. In Islamabad 1942 cameras were installed in 2016 but their effectiveness and governance were questioned by many. In Punjab six cities had built a skeleton of Safe city centres but no further action was taken after 2018.

Police departments in the provinces stressed upon petrol station owners, banks, jewelers and money exchange dealers to install CCTV cameras for improvements in security and as a deterrent for the thieves. Lahore High Court ordered Punjab Police to install cameras in the Police stations for prevention of torture and illegal detention of the victims/ suspects citizens to curb practice of Habius Corpus. Police department in Punjab even started taking attendance of Station House Officers (SHOs) in their offices and central monitoring was started in Punjab Police HQ in 2017. First Pakistan Super League in 2017 was given approval by a security team of ICC after verification of surveillance system installed at Qaddafi Stadium and throughout on the route of the cricket teams. Present Chief Justice of Pakistan has also ordered installation of 10,000 cameras in Karachi few years ago. Lahore had almost 9000 cameras till 2020 under safe city project. Number of cameras owned by private owners and covering public spaces is still unknown.

In the meantime, intelligent traffic management system also started working in Lahore and E-Challan (E-ticketing) for automated red light traffic violations was also started on the directions of Lahore High Court in 2018. Lahore waste management company started monitoring of garbage through same cameras. Lahore Parking company automated its parking ticket system with same tools. Lahore Walled City Authority solicited help to monitor illegal construction in the Lahore Walled City to retrieve digital evidence to bring the violators to the book. Environment Protection Agency was ordered by the Lahore High Court to take help of cameras to control smoke emitting industries and vehicles. It shows that use of cameras for monitoring and surveillance was expanded from security to other sectors of governance and decision makers were getting benefit from camera technology coupled with artificial intelligence.

Every technological intervention in public sector is expected to change the landscape of usual business and it may have some unintended consequences. So was the use  of the cameras for many purposes. Latest case of identifying the installation of secret cameras in the Senate is an important one to quote. People may ask following questions: Since when these cameras in Senate of Pakistan were installed? Who operates these cameras? What is being done with the data collected? Who processes the collected information? These questions are important from public accountability perspective. In case of cameras installed in public places, it is possible to find these answers, though a lot of effort will be required. In case of hidden cameras, it is very challenging and even dangerous at times. Appropriate guidance is provided by courts in Pakistan, in some cases.

In case of Late Judge Muhammad Arshad, Islamabad High Court has provided guidance about filming of video to be admissible for evidentiary purposes. In no cases, hidden cameras are allowed except it is covered under Information under Fair Trial Act of 2014. The permission for such technological interventions, even before commission of an offence, has to be obtained from the court of law based upon some tangible reasons of suspicion against the accused. In general, cameras in camera are neither encouraged without explicit information or without knowledge and permission of the people under surveillance, in Pakistan. It is a matter of privacy of the people.

Interestingly, Privacy as a fundamental human right is mentioned in Article 14 (1) the constitution of Pakistan 1973. It reads, “[t]he dignity of man and, subject to law, the privacy of home, shall be inviolable.” Being enshrined as fundamental human right, the right to privacy is meant to take precedence over any other inconsistent provisions of local or special laws. When it comes to secrecy of vote or choice to elect a member of any public or private body, it is protection of privacy right of the voter, unless otherwise mention in the law or procedure of that enterprise or organisation.

In case of protection of privacy right in other domains, it is also vital. E-Challans not only capture pictures of the offenders,but also their companions in the vehicles who have the right to remain anonymous and unrecognizable as they are not committing any violation being not driving the vehicle. In case of surveillance of public places, privacy rights of personal spaces need to be respected and protected. Such cases also appeared in private spaces like,like one in the  cinema of Lahore and another in  a university of Baluchistan,where footage from CCTV cameras were leaked causing serious consequences for the people appearing in these videos. Presently, we are watching videos of one party or the other circulating on social media and through other digital mediums. Secretly taped videos may not be acceptable for the court as an admissible evidence but their impact for building public perceptions is undeniable. In most of the cases, such acts tantamount to breach of privacy rights of the people.

The scope of privacy rights in Pakistan is limited to privacy at home. There are penal laws to protect the trespass in property of a person to implement this right to that extent. But with new technologies, scope of privacy rights has expanded to various other domains. Pakistan is also a signatory to International Convention  on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which does not limit privacy rights to homes as in the Constitution of Pakistan 1973.  There are no clear laws to enforce privacy rights in public and to take action against filming of secret videos affecting privacy of the people, regardless purpose of making such videos. There is need to amend the Article 14 (1) of the Constitution and expand it to privacy in all cases, subjected to law. If there are legal requirements, e.g security or protection of dignity of the people, then this fundamental right may be traded off subjected to law. Procedural laws should be drafted and implemented to protect the fundamental privacy rights of the people in line with international obligations. In a digital world of 21st century, one cannot keep on waiting for a godot to come and amend the constitution of Pakistan. Parliamentarians have to do it – one party or the other or both of them; it ought to be done.

This op-ed is already published in Daily The Nation on March 16, 2021 and can be accessed at