Hyderabad ‘On the Brink of Becoming a Total Surveillance City’, Says Amnesty

As part of its 'Ban the Scan' campaign, the NGO has said extensive surveillance in Hyderabad has worrying implications for human rights.

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New Delhi: The first documented use of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) technology comes from Germany in 1942, where it was deployed to monitor the use of rockets for the country’s war effort. In 2021, 79 years later, the Earth’s billionth CCTV camera is expected to be installed. 

The rapid proliferation of this technology has worrying implications for surveillance and, consequently, for human rights, such as the right to privacy. 

Human rights organisation Amnesty International has in the latest installment of its campaign to ban intrusive facial recognition technology, has singled out Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana, saying extensive surveillance is putting human rights at risk.

“Hyderabad is on the brink of becoming a total surveillance city. It is almost impossible to walk down the street without risking exposure to facial recognition,” Matt Mahmoudi, Amnesty International’s AI and Big Data researcher, is quoted as saying in the report.

“Facial recognition technology can track who you are, where you go, what you do and who you know. It threatens human rights including the right to privacy and puts some of the most vulnerable in society at risk,” said Quinn McKew, executive director at Article 19, an international human rights organisation that was part of Amnesty’s ‘Ban the Scan’ campaign.

What is more worrying to note is that, of the ten cities in the world with the greatest density of CCTV cameras per square km, three are in India.

In fact, Chennai has the greatest density of CCTV cameras in the world with 657 cameras per square km, followed by Hyderabad with 480 per square km. Delhi is the third of the Indian cities on this list and takes up the eighth spot, having 289 cameras per square km.

Listen: Facial Recognition Technology Is Biased Against People of Colour and Impacts Their Lives

Hyderabad’s worrying development project

Hyderabad, however, is the city that has drawn the most attention when it comes to the potential of becoming a full-blown, Orwellian surveillance state. This owes – in no small part – to the development of a ‘Command and Control Centre’ (CCC) which aims to link the city’s vast CCTV infrastructure in real time.

Since Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao laid the foundation stone for the Rs 800 crore project in 2015, its development has been ongoing in the city’s up-market Banjara Hills neighbourhood. According to state home minister Mohammed Mahmood Ali, the command centre is expected to be functional by this year and is being justified under the familiar ‘Big Brother’ rhetoric of “safety”.

Hyderabad’s Command and Control Centre is currently under construction in the Banjara Hills neighbourhood. Photo: cm.telangana.gov.in.

The development of surveillance infrastructure in the city – located in Telangana, the Indian state with the most facial recognition technology (FRT) projects underway – was also flagged by Amnesty.

‘Ban the Scan’ is Amnesty’s global campaign to push for a ban on the use of FRT due to its adverse implications on the rights of privacy and freedom of expression. The first phase of this campaign focused on FRT in New York and found troubling instances in which such technology was weaponised by law enforcement agencies and how it exacerbated problems of racism and profiling.

Amnesty’s research on the use of the technology in Hyderabad is being conducted in partnership with the Internet Freedom Foundation and Article 19.

Apart from Hyderabad’s extensive CCTV infrastructure, authorities in the city have dabbled with the use of FRT in other sensitive situations as well. During the second phase of coronavirus infections in the country in May this year, reports emerged of police officers photographing citizens without their consent; even asking them to remove their masks in order to do so. 

As per the Identification of Prisoners Act, 1920, law enforcement officials are only allowed to take photographs of individuals who have been arrested or convicted of a crime. Yet, Hyderabad police did so in the guise of enforcing compliance with the COVID-19 lockdown.

In yet another concerning development, videos last month showed police in Hyderabad selecting citizens at random and searching their phones for keywords such as ‘ganja’. Even as activists decried the practice, saying it is not sanctioned under any law, the deputy commissioner of police (South Zone) Gajarao Bhupal said that people were “cooperating” with the checks and that “no one is complaining”.

Amnesty’ findings

Sampling two neighbourhoods in the city: Kala Pathar and Kishan Bagh, Amnesty, the Internet Freedom Foundation and Article 19 mapped the presence of outdoor CCTV cameras and estimated that 530,864 square metres (53.7%) and 513,683 square metres (62.7%) of the total area of these neighbourhoods were under surveillance. 

Once the CCC becomes functional, it is expected to be able to process data 600,000 cameras at once – which can be expanded in scope when the time comes – and can be linked to the Hyderabad police’s existing FRT infrastructure. 

What’s more, there are currently no laws to regulate FRT in India, either for their use or for their sale and manufacture. Amnesty contacted five companies involved in activities related to FRT in order to understand what human rights policies they operate under.

Only one of these companies – Innefu Labs, an information security firm – responded to the request and told Amnesty that its clients (or “user agencies”) are “under no obligation to adhere to any terms and conditions of the vendor”. In another response, it admitted that it had no human rights policy and that it was “following Indian laws and guidelines”.

As the Amnesty report points out, the UN Guiding Principles for Businesses and Human Rights state that all companies must have a human rights policy in place and must take steps to mitigate the risk of human rights violations posed by their operations. Yet, none of the companies that Amnesty reached out to were able to prove that they do so.

“There is currently no legislation in place to protect the privacy of citizens – facial recognition is a harmful and invasive technology and it is imperative that Indian authorities immediately stop the use of this dangerous technology,” said Anushka Jain, who is the Internet Freedom Foundation’s associate counsel for surveillance and transparency.

Mass surveillance poses risks for every citizen in the country and specifically to historically marginalised communities, such as religious and sexual minorities, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and the Dalit and Adivasi communities. 

Also read: Snoop List Has 40 Indian Journalists, Forensic Tests Confirm Presence of Pegasus Spyware on Some

India’s track record with surveillance has, in the recent past, revealed shaky foundations, be it with the ongoing investigation into the government’s alleged use of the Pegasus spyware or with these recent developments regarding an ever-expanding FRT infrastructure. Amnesty International’s campaign has singled out Hyderabad for its past experiments with FRT use – such as police randomly demanding both facial and fingerprint reads from civilians – and the worrying potential the upcoming CCC project has.