Police Commissioner CV Anand said the city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years on patrol vehicles, CCTV cameras, facial recognition and geo-tracking applications and several hundred facial recognition cameras, among other technologies powered by algorithms or machine learning.
Inside Hyderabad’s Command and Control Center, officers showed an AP reporter how they run CCTV camera footage through facial recognition software that scans images against a database of offenders.
“When (companies) decide to invest in a city, they first look at the law-and-order situation,” Anand said, defending the use of such tools as absolutely necessary. “People here are aware of what the technologies can do, and there is wholesome support for it.”
By May 2020, the police chief of Telangana state tweeted about his department rolling out AI-based software using CCTV to zero-in on people not wearing masks. The tweet included photos of the software overlaying colored rectangles on the maskless faces of unsuspecting locals.
More than a year later, police tweeted images of themselves using hand-held tablets to scan people’s faces using facial recognition software, according to a post from the official Twitter handle of the station house officer in the Amberpet neighbourhood.
Police said the tablets, which can take ordinary photographs or link them to a facial recognition database of criminals, were a useful way for officers to catch and fine mask offenders.
“When they see someone not wearing a mask, they go up to them, take a photo on their tablet, take down their details like phone number and name,” said B Guru Naidu, an inspector in Hyderabad’s South Zone.
Officers decide who they deem suspicious, stoking fears among privacy advocates, some Muslims and members of Hyderabad’s lower-caste communities.
“If the patrolling officers suspect any person, they take their fingerprints or scan their face – the app on the tablet will then check these for any past criminal antecedents,” Naidu said.
S Q Masood, a social activist who has led government transparency campaigns in Hyderabad, sees more at stake. Masood and his father-in-law were seemingly stopped at random by police in Shahran market, a predominantly Muslim area, during a COVID-19 surge last year. Masood said officers told him to remove his mask so they could photograph him with a tablet.
“I told them I won’t remove my mask. They then asked me why not, and I told them I will not remove my mask.” He said they photographed him with it in place. Back home, Masood went from bewildered to anxious: Where and how was this photo to be used? Would it be added to the police’s facial recognition database?
Now he’s suing in the Telangana High Court to find out why his photo was taken and to limit the widespread use of facial recognition. His case could set the tone for India’s growing ambition to combine emerging technology with law enforcement in the world’s largest democracy, experts said.
India lacks a data protection law and even existing proposals won’t regulate surveillance technologies if they become law, said Apar Gupta, executive director of the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, which is helping to represent Masood.
Police responded to Masood’s lawsuit and denied using facial recognition in his case, saying that his photograph was not scanned against any database and that facial recognition is only used during the investigation of a crime or suspected crime, when it can be run against CCTV footage.
In two separate AP interviews, local police demonstrated both how the TSCOP app carried by police on the street can compare a person’s photograph to a facial recognition database of criminals, and how from the Command and Control Center police can use facial recognition analysis to compare stored mugshots of criminals to video gathered from CCTV cameras.
Masood’s lawyers are working on a response and awaiting a hearing date.
Privacy advocates in India believe that such stepped-up actions under the pandemic could enable what they call 360 degree surveillance, under which things like housing, welfare, health and other kinds of data are all linked together to create a profile.
“Surveillance today is being posed as a technological panacea to large social problems in India, which has brought us very close to China,” Gupta said. “There is no law. There are no safeguards. And this is general purpose deployment of mass surveillance.”
“THE NEW NORMAL”
What use will ultimately be made of the data collected and tools developed during the height of the pandemic remains an open question. But recent uses in Australia and the United States may offer a glimpse.
During two years of strict border controls, Australia’s conservative former Prime Minister Scott Morrison took the extraordinary step of appointing himself minister of five departments, including the Department of Health. Authorities introduced both national and state-level apps to notify people when they had been in the vicinity of someone who tested positive for the virus.
But the apps were also used in other ways. Australia’s intelligence agencies were caught “incidentally” collecting data from the national COVIDSafe app. News of the breach surfaced in a November 2020 report by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, which said there was no evidence that the data was decrypted, accessed or used.
The national app was canceled in August by a new administration as a waste of money: It had identified only two positive COVID-19 cases that wouldn’t have been found otherwise.
At the local level, people used apps to tap their phones against a site’s QR code, logging their individual ID so that if a COVID-19 outbreak occurred, they could be contacted. The data sometimes was used for other purposes. Australian law enforcement co-opted the state-level QR check-in data as a sort of electronic dragnet to investigate crimes.