10 min read.Updated: 10 Nov 2020, 07:34 AM ISTVarsha Bansal
Telangana is leading the way in using tech to track citizens. Other Indian cities are looking to emulate the model
Several cities are already in the process of setting up integrated command-and-control centres. The new hardware, combined with AI and facial recognition, could easily be misused
Sameer Bora has been living in Hyderabad for over 15 years. An employee of a technology company, it usually takes Bora 30 minutes to drive to his office. As he heads out of his apartment building in his blue-coloured Baleno, he’s captured by two CCTV cameras in the lane.
Driving along, he passes four city intersections where he is greeted by at least one CCTV at each of the junctions before he finally parks his vehicle in the basement of his workplace. In a span of 30 minutes, Bora is watched by at least six cameras.
“I’ve noticed that the presence of these cameras has forced people to not jump signals and be more mindful," says Bora, 40. “So, I think deterrence works."
These cameras have slowly cropped up in the city of Hyderabad over the last few years, bringing the total city-wide count to more than 580,000. Hyderabad was recently named as the city with the most number of CCTV cameras in India, and the 16th most surveilled city in the world, according to a July 2020 report by UK-based tech firm Comparitech.
Over 10 million inhabitants of Hyderabad, including Bora, are being constantly watched through this new web of cameras. And this is about to get worse. The city police recently announced that the number of CCTVs in Hyderabad will be doubled to 1 million by the end of 2020, averaging out to one camera for every 10 citizens.
Over the past few years, the Telangana government has become notorious for deploying different kinds of technologies to expand surveillance across the state under the garb of digital governance. This has led to a proliferation of CCTV cameras, AI-based solutions, facial recognition (FR) and many more such technologies that have crept into every aspect of a citizen’s life—ranging from traffic violations and pension disbursal to even voting during local elections.
“A lot of data is being generated through the feeds of the CCTV cameras which can be made useful using AI," says Jayesh Ranjan, IT Secretary of Telangana. “Images are matched with offenders and criminals through the master server. There is exceptional monitoring. Through facial recognition, a match is made."
And most citizens in the city, for now, have gotten normalized to the idea of being watched by these cameras in order to feel safe. “It has all happened so smoothly that we don’t even realize we are on camera all the time," says CR Hemanth Kumar, a resident of Hyderabad. “The police have made it so matter of fact and everyone is voluntarily opting for CCTVs because the attitude is that it is better to be safe than sorry."
But digital rights activists and privacy experts say that as Hyderabad plans to double the number of CCTVs in the city, the surveillance technology which is getting incubated in the city has the potential to be exported to a slew of other Indian cities. Several cities are already in the process of setting up integrated command and control centres (or ICCCs) as part of the Smart Cities Mission and the new hardware, combined with AI and facial recognition-based software, could easily be misused in the absence of a progressive data protection law, experts say.
While the situation is nowhere close to what happens in authoritarian countries like China, where the inhabitants of many cities are constantly watched, the emerging trend is a matter of concern as incidents in other countries offer adequate proof regarding the potential for abuse when the state constantly watches its citizens and collects all manner of data about their daily life.
The surveillance web
The upmarket locality of Banjara Hills in Hyderabad houses the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) party office, a white building with a board splashed in pink representing the party colour. It’s probably the most important building in that neighborhood. Another one is coming up right next to it: a new police headquarters. The state-of-the-art twin tower which will double up as an integrated command and control centre is planned to be up and running by the end of the year.
The 18 and 24-storeyed twin tower spread across seven acres and worth ₹300 crore is going to support the vast network of CCTV cameras dotted across the city and state. It will have a “giant video wall" which will show live footage from the cameras on-ground. One could say that it will house one of the largest surveillance systems in the country.
The underlying architecture of it all is referred to as: The Common Operating Picture Correlation Engine or COP CE—an AI-based integrated safe city solution. COP has been designed to integrate with the core Telangana State Police system “including TSCOP, HawkEye, Safe City Platform with ArcGIS, CCTNS, court systems, traffic systems, cyber and forensic systems, etc". The government calls it an “augmented intelligence integrated solution" that would provide “actionable insights and situational awareness" for field officers to make informed decisions in real-time.
This means agents on-ground from departments including police, fire, municipal, public health and others would be able to receive actionable insights, which will be based on historical data processed by the COP. For instance, COP could help patrol officers understand where to maintain presence or help a police officer gather details of the suspects and recent crimes in their jurisdiction.
It can be thought of as the parent search engine that integrates data from multiple disparate data sources. Police pitch this technology as a necessary means for social control and maintaining order, but many don’t buy it. “A state government using this network of tools—CCTV, facial recognition, AI and a 360 degree database—to monitor its citizens is the death of democracy," says Srinivas Kodali, a digital rights activist and one of the most outspoken voices in Hyderabad against its policing practices. “It makes it easy for the police to find and come after people solely based on suspicion."
Kodali also points out that the cameras make it difficult for people to come out and express themselves in a crowd, especially in a state like Telangana where protests aren’t allowed. “The police tend to record everyone during protests and then come after them after the political momentum fades away."
How it all began
Hyderabad wasn’t always armed with surveillance tools. Until 2013—a year before the bifurcation of united Andhra Pradesh—CCTVs were virtually unheard of in the city. During that year, the state police said they would install around 5,000 advanced CCTV cameras. At the same time, the state’s Public Safety Act came into being which mandated that any establishment where over a 100 people may gather would have to install CCTV surveillance cameras and provide access to the footage to the local authorities.
The next year, the state broke off into two after a long political battle. The new government of Telangana announced that they would install 10,000 CCTVs in Hyderabad and have a “world-class surveillance system." “Hyderabad city has got international recognition. We will make it a world-class city with law and order as top priority," chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao had said back then.
Digital rights activists and privacy lawyers say this was a turning point for the city. “This was when the police officials were given a free hand and law enforcement anywhere in the world loves full surveillance," says Mishi Chowdhary, a tech policy lawyer based in New York.
Since then, the city has slowly expanded the use of technology to track the movement of its inhabitants. The local police were given computer tablets, digital cameras and, in 2018, an app called TSCOP was launched which gave the cops access to the national-level Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS), a database of images and details of known offenders at the central level.
“There has been an image makeover for the local police… saying they are more friendly and they follow a no-touch policy," says the city resident Kumar. “Every constable has a digital camera in their hands and we have seen them randomly clicking photos."
The government has also created a comprehensive dataset of all citizens across the state called the Samagram system which is built on the Integrated Household Survey that the government had conducted in 2014 in order to collect demographic and socio-economic details. This “360 degree citizen tracking system", which is expected to track the movements of the 30 million residents of Telangana, was also offered as a solution to the Narendra Modi government to help create India’s Social Registry, a tool to monitor the changes in the life of an average Indians—from purchasing property to moving cities or changing a job.
In May, as the covid-19 pandemic was raging, Hyderabad city police started repurposing their CCTV cameras to track people who weren’t wearing face masks in a public place using AI and then slap a fine on them. Five months later, in September, the northern city of Agra announced that they will be updating the 635 smart cameras in order to spot citizens without face masks and immediately write up a ticket. These smart cameras are connected with the city’s integrated command and control centre.
This is the latest example in a series of instances where a tech deployed first in Hyderabad has been replicated in other cities, including facial recognition at airports and automatic number plate recognition systems.
Apart from Hyderabad, some of the other cities that have implemented wide-scale CCTV deployment are New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Surat, Visakhapatnam, Nagpur, Jaipur and Gurugram. Experts cite concerns over CCTV surveillance becoming one of the top priorities under the Smart City project.
“There is a trend to attempt to redefine citizenship through the construct of the smart city," says Divij Joshi, a fellow at Mozilla. “This equates smartness and citizenship with surveillance and control."
Privacy versus safety
The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, which was drafted to protect the data privacy of Indians is expected to be tabled in the next year’s Budget session, according to news reports. But policy experts say that the guidelines in the data protection bill have a much wider scope of exemption for the government and certain types of processing by the state can take place even without consent.
“The way our laws are structured, the state has the right to get access to any data, document or information, and it can happen without judicial approval," says Smriti Parsheera, a tech policy researcher at the think tank National Institute Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP). “The more and more these technologies are adopted, it normalizes the fact that you are on camera all the time."
The police department in Hyderabad, however, claims that using technology for policing has led to a drop in the crime rate and has also helped in tracing missing children. Just recently, Telangana home minister Mohammed Mahmood Ali said that crime in Telangana is low when compared to other states, attributing this difference primarily to technology.
“In India, it appeals to the tendencies of people who expect the authorities to take care of everything. It makes us blindly accept this surveillance tech without any guardrails," says Chowdhary.
The state police department also claims that due to the implementation of surveillance technology, they are able to apprehend 99% of suspects within 24 hours. One such case involved the tech employee Bora’s colleague, who was a victim of a chain-snatching incident in which the perpetrator was caught with the help of CCTV camera footage.
“While there were other clues that helped the cops, the CCTV footage was a strong piece of the puzzle to help them find the person who had snatched my colleague’s chain," says Bora.
But many experts are unconvinced by such anecdotal examples, where CCTV and other surveillance tools might have indeed helped to solve a specific incident of crime. “Video surveillance helps the state and the police know more about people. It helps facilitate their job by watching our movement," says Mozilla’s Joshi. “But does it actually help reduce crime? That can’t definitively be attributed to just CCTVs because there are way too many factors involved."
Varsha Bansal is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.
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