Hyderabad: The Perils of Importing ‘Hi-Tech Policing’ Without the Necessary Safeguards

The lack of accountability mechanisms along with the proliferation of surveillance technologies is causing various problems, which neither the police nor the political establishment wants to address.

Policing in Hyderabad has changed over the last few years after the formation of Telangana. Technology-based practices have completely taken over traditional beat policing. This project of modernisation of policing has been long and coercive, with a never-ending list of human rights violations carried out by the police in the region.

But these violations are no more rooted in the feudal and nation-state structures that were the primary cause of violence in the region post-independence. Since the 1990s, it is the transnational demands of globalisation that determined how policing practices are carried out in Hyderabad.

The background

Modernisation of policing in India has been a long pending project for the Ministry for Home Affairs (MHA). After the Mumbai terror attacks of 26/11, the MHA along with National Crime Records Bureau began working on several new surveillance projects along with the modernisation and digitisation of policing. The MHA promoted and funded several experiments of policing across the country as part of this exercise.

As a developed region in India, Hyderabad became the testing ground for many of the experiments for digitisation. Everything from Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS), Automatic Fingerprint Recognition System, Facial Recognition Systems, Operation Chabutra, Stop and Scan searches, and cordon searches were all piloted first in Hyderabad before they were expanded across the country.

If you have seen the Hyderabad police go around with Android tablets with the TSCOP application in it, taking photos, imposing fines and verifying your identity details with their 360-degree profile databases, these are not original ideas. The present practices of electronic policing in Hyderabad were borrowed from a tiny eastern European nation Estonia. The Estonian story of IT development is very similar to that of Hyderabad – both regions digitised their economies during Y2K (turn of the millennium) and continued to supply information technology solutions to global markets.

The policing projects along with several other systems like digital identity, land registries and population registries were all ideas that were first experimented in Estonia and then later in Hyderabad. Both places have become grounds of experimentation networked via the same investor – the World Bank, that promoted these experiments.

Like every year, this year too, the information technology and industries minister of Telangana, K.T. Rama Rao made his pilgrimage to the World Economic Forum to attract investments to Hyderabad. Investments continue to pour into the region and they are not just because K.T. Rama Rao is articulate, but because of what he promises the investors in return for the investment – continuous growth with no interruptions from anyone in economic activity and safety for investments.

No bureaucratic hurdles, no union protests, business-friendly changes to laws and rules, no local political leaders interrupting infrastructure projects, and complete cooperation of the state make it easy for business activity. A trend that started with the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 90s has pretty much continued.

Also Read: Telangana Is Inching Closer to Becoming a Total Surveillance State

Policing in Hyderabad pre- and post-formation of Telangana

While investments into the region are important for improving economic and social development, they often come at hidden costs that are not fairly obvious. Many people believe the new policing practices of the Indian police like elsewhere in the country are a result of the totalitarian turn of the policing force due to right-wing politics, which does not hold true for Hyderabad.

These practices have been imposed on us by various investors and have been continuously confirmed by various commissioners of the Hyderabad police, who continue to say they are doing their “smart policing” to attract investments into the region. Their goal of a safe Hyderabad is rather a demand for a “brand Hyderabad” to the police department as well. The branding of Hyderabad police as a “people friendly police” also comes from this demand to meet global standards, to be compared with the likes of the New York Police Department, London Metropolitan Police etc.

The interest in CCTVs for the police had multiple applications beyond the traditional security angle. The Outer Ring Road (ORR) project being supported by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2009 also supported the implementation of the Intelligent Transportation Systems, which included Electronic Toll Collection Systems, CCTVs and Automatic Traffic Counters for Traffic Management.

Japan was offering us low-interest rate loans to help us build the Outer Ring Road and also give Japanese technology assistance to install various technology systems from Japanese firms. Several companies demonstrated these technologies to the Hyderabad team that visited Japan. In doing this, JICA has ensured we buy electronic equipment from Japanese companies with “yen” loans provided by them, essentially helping find new customers for Japanese firms and Hyderabad was getting “developed”.

The installation of CCTVs didn’t progress at the pace it should have because of various reasons, including uncertainty of day-to-day governance after the death of the then chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy. When another bomb exploded in a public shopping area in Dilsukhnagar on February 21, 2013, it forced the police to push for amendments to the Public Safety Act.

The Public Safety Act mandated every shop establishment to install a CCTV camera and every police commissionerate to maintain a CCTV unit to monitor them. The plan to implement Intelligent Transportation Systems for Hyderabad traffic was also going nowhere, so JICA was asked for further assistance in 2014 for implementing Intelligent Transportation Systems across the Hyderabad metropolitan area and not just the ORR.

Hyderabad’s Command and Control Centre, which will enable greater surveillance of citizens. Photo: cm.telangana.gov.in.

Multiple projects

Even though the Public Safety Act was amended in 2013 and plans for implementation of CCTVs across Hyderabad were being made for traffic management, these were nowhere close enough to what the Hyderabad police wanted. To their rescue came another Japanese company, NEC Japan, which offered to create safer cities by providing facial recognition cameras. The NEC Corporation is a global giant when it comes to biometrics – they have been involved with every major policing organisation to provide them tools for fingerprint scanning to facial recognition systems.

The Hyderabad police also used their “Nenu Saitam/Community CCTV” scheme to force CCTVs in every apartment and neighbourhood, citing the Public Safety Act of 2013, even though the Act makes it mandatory only for shops and establishments to install CCTVs.

It is important to understand the global economic relations that have forced intrusive forms of technologies on us, but beyond economics, there is also the geopolitical component. India is not only importing models from the West but also the East, especially from countries like Singapore which has been our “model state”.

The India-Japan cooperation is also strategically important because the Indian security establishment sees security risks in procuring CCTVs or any electronic equipment from China. This has also been an important issue with the tendering process around the National Facial Recognition System, where foreign institutions were being favoured and domestic companies were opposing the move.

The problem with the current setup of CCTVs, facial recognition and other intrusive technologies that have been imported from these countries is, we have not imported their laws and accountability mechanisms. The lack of accountability mechanisms with the proliferation of these technologies is resulting in various problems, which neither the police establishment nor the political establishment wants to address.

These technologies are being abused to do preventive detentions, extra-legal surveillance, wrongly target marginalised people and more than anything, they are being experimented on Hyderabadis before they become national systems

Srinivas Kodali is a researcher with interests in cities, data and the internet.

This article was first published by the Siasat Daily.