India is rapidly digitising. There are good things and bad, speed-bumps on the way and caveats to be mindful of. The weekly column Terminal focuses on all that is connected and is not – on digital issues, policy, ideas and themes dominating the conversation in India and the world.
Custodial torture leading to the death of Mohammad Khadeer Khan in Telangana may make you wonder as to why an innocent man was targeted by the Telangana Police.
The police justified their actions by arresting Khadeer for investigation into a gold snatching incident, where the thief was captured in CCTV cameras wearing a mask. Even though Khadeer was not the actual thief, he was arrested and tortured, leading to several questions on policing practices, the role of CCTV and facial recognition technology by Telangana Police, and why exactly he was targeted.
A fact-finding committee in Telangana has concluded that there was no involvement of facial recognition in this, but merely some unrecognisable CCTV footage of a masked thief. Yet, the police tracked Khadeer and arrested him by tracing his location using cellular towers. Every cop in Telangana can find out where anyone is by just using a person’s phone number and the geolocation capabilities of cellular networks. All of this is without any warrants. In the case of Khadeer, extensive call data records were obtained to locate and target him.
Since the formation of Telangana, digitisation and modernisation has made the Telangana Police a very futuristic force with a new arsenal of weapons of information. Along with improvement in physical infrastructure used by Telangana Police, you will find increased usage of technological tools that are just emerging.
The police started maintaining 360 degree profiles of every citizen in the state, obtained from other government databases like welfare and revenue records. In case of criminals, the police carried out a large-scale surveys of where every ex-convict was in the state and geo-located their houses. This extensive datafication by police has resulted in various new policing practices.
Every ex-convict is by default under extensive surveillance in the state and has been subjected to various forms of harassment by the police.
Every day beat cops in Telangana randomly visit an ex-convict’s house based on a randomisation algorithm that directs them to the geotagged houses using the TS-COP app. The outcomes of this app were not necessarily good for ex-convicts, who were continuously harassed whenever there was a crime within their locality.
So it was that if a crime happened, the cops went looking for the nearest criminal with a criminal history and tortured him to confess. I believe Khadeer was targeted for this reason, even though I am unable to establish any criminal history of him as the police are neither denying or accepting what they have done.
TS-COP is the same application that also has facial recognition, which is used by cops randomly to stop people on the street in an attempt to identify if they have any criminal history. It is this application that also gives cops access to our call data records and geo-locations. Every aspect of policing including marking of attendance by cops, registration of FIRs, collection of evidence is done via this app.
This ‘super app’ is a weapon in cops’ hands but it comes without a safety switch. Every beat cop has access to all sorts of information and there is no need for any warrant in what cops call “real-time policing”.
Forget the right to privacy for a bit, the basic policing practice of securing warrants is dead in Telangana.
This digitisation of all policing practices has created a circus of events in Telangana, where cops randomly stop you to photograph you, collect your fingerprints and visit your house in the middle of the night to check if you are home. These practices eventually got the backing of a law when the all new Criminal Procedure Identification Act of 2022 was enacted. But before that, the Telangana Police was evolving these practices as part of their modernisation drive (with a bit of digitisation) by experimenting on the masses in Hyderabad with complete impunity.
The emergence of new extra-legal policing practices like Operation Chabutra, where teenagers were being detained post midnight, cordon searches in entire neighbourhoods, fingerprint searches, and facial recognition are all new policing tactics that have evolved with the aid of tech.
How they are being used and on whom is evident, with most of these practices directed at the poor. The police has never told people under what authority they are being turned into guinea pigs for technology experimentation. Most people caught in such a position cannot afford to question police either.
There was a minor win in terms of jurisprudence when the Telangana high court has agreed with a few ex-convicts on their harassment by the police. But there has been little change.
To understand what happened to Khadeer Khan, one really needs to understand these various policing practices. In Telangana, these practices have evolved ahead of other states and they remain secretive. One should note there was no arrest warrant or an FIR in the case of Khadeer Khan for his illegal detention for five days.
Policing practices have been traditionally authoritative. Police have always shown impunity and always assumed power.
Technology is increasing this power inequality without any form of accountability in sight. The lack of a ‘Telangana Police Manual and Standing Orders’ in the public domain also makes it impossible to question the police on these practices.
But the most important question that we need to ask is, do these new tech and practices that cops are developing actually work? Khadeer’s death shows us they do not.
Srinivas Kodali is a researcher on digitisation and hacktivist.