It’s 2020 that Covid-19 The pandemic has reached its peak and you urgently need to go to the pharmacy to stock up on essentials. When you go there, cameras are installed on almost every street you pass, closely watching as they try to identify your face and track your movements. You cross the street only to be intercepted by police officers who will ask you to remove your face mask. You ask why, but no one answers. Then you stand in a row with no explanation and an officer holds your face on a tablet.
That might sound like a scene from a movie set in a dystopian world. Indeed, this is an emerging reality for the people of Hyderabad, which is on the verge of becoming a city of total surveillance. Police officers say that more than six lakh CCTV cameras have already been deployed in the city, with the very real possibility that this number will continue to grow. These ubiquitous cameras will soon be connected on a real-time network managed by the Hyderabad Command and Control Center. They can be used in combination with the police’s existing facial recognition cameras – meaning that in Hyderabad today it is virtually impossible to walk down the street without exposure to this invasive technology.
A lot of worrying news has emerged from Hyderabad of illegal cordon and search operations and indiscriminate searches of civilians, as well as reports of police stopping and taking photos of people on the streets for no reason.
The construction of the Integrated Police Command Control Center at Banjara Hills, Hyderabad for Rs. 800 billion is another worrying development. This center will allow the police to access real-time surveillance footage from the camera network that is monitoring the city. This center also conducts surveillance practices that further anchor and automate discriminatory and problematic police practices – such as data analysis, social media analytics, and facial recognition. It is a daunting attempt to use technology to control citizens’ lives.
Face recognition technology identifies the various features of a person’s face to create a biometric card, which an algorithm then assigns to possible people. The system searches databases of millions of images that have been scraped off without knowledge or consent and often fails.
The use of facial recognition technology is already being scrutinized around the world, with some jurisdictions, including Belgium and Luxembourg, already banning its use. The European Union is in the process of finalizing and enacting one of the most comprehensive bans on facial recognition technology to date, while the United States has passed several city and state bans and moratoriums. More than 200 organizations have called for a global ban on the use of biometric surveillance technologies that allow for mass and discriminatory surveillance while they are Facebook announced that it would discontinue its facial recognition program.
Yet many police forces in India – including the Hyderabad Police – are still acquiring and using this dangerous and invasive technology today.
In India, these technological violations of our human rights are particularly dire. The right to privacy was recognized as a fundamental right by the Supreme Court of India in 2017 and included under the right to life and liberty. However, without a law to regulate data collection and act as a supervisory mechanism, legitimate concerns about data protection and other legal violations persist.
The lack of any legal framework for data protection, especially in connection with personal biometric data, means that we are blindly transforming our public spaces into places of technological experimentation where human rights are ignored for profit and control reasons.
The proposed 2019 Personal Data Protection Act has been stuck in parliament for years. Nevertheless, the police and secret services have accelerated their activities to collect unaudited personal data.
Under the guise of protecting women and children, huge amounts of public money are being spent on these technologies without any evidence of their effectiveness, wasting valuable public funds.
Government programs such as Safe City, Smart City and the Nirbhaya Fund have been used to fund these projects – but the human rights violations that arise as a result of their use far outweigh any alleged benefits that these technologies allegedly offer.
Not only does the Hyderabad surveillance police model raise significant human rights concerns, it could also motivate other state police and intelligence agencies to take similar action across the country. Telangana State authorities have an obligation to uphold human rights by prohibiting the use of dangerous facial recognition technology.
This column first appeared in print on November 24, 2021 under the title “Panoptican city”. Jain is Associate Counsel with the Internet Freedom Foundation; Likhita is a researcher and consultant at Amnesty International; Mahmoudi is an AI and big data researcher at Amnesty International.