The Telangana government will be doubling the number of the number of CCTV cameras in its capital city of Hyderabad. IT and Industries minister KT Rama Rao and Home minister Mahamood Ali directed officials on Monday to almost double the number of cameras from the existing 5.80 lakh to 10 lakh. “Hyderabad city” presumably refers to the three police commissionerate regions in the region — Hyderabad, Cyberabad and Rachakonda. The decision was taken at a review meeting held on Monday.

The state government wants CCTV cameras everywhere in the city — and it does seem to mean everywhere. Here is a list of places where Rao and Ali have asked the police and other officials to install CCTV cameras:

  • All commercial complexes, gated communities, malls, parks, IT parks, shelter homes, government hospitals, bus terminals and markets.
  • Various government departments, public sector undertaking and residential welfare associations, wherever cameras are “required”.
  • Officials be on the look-out for “opportunities” to set up CCTV cameras on newly-built flyovers, metro pillars, and also near to the parks, lakes and basti dawakhanas (neighbourhood clinics).

‘Citizen safety the highest priority’: Rama Rao said that “citizen safety” is of the highest priority to Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao. He indicated that measures such as increasing the number of CCTV cameras were being undertaken to “beef up” security in the state.

Hyderabad’s is India’s most surveilled city

Hyderabad has the dubious distinction of the city that has the most CCTV cameras in India, according to a report from July 2020 by UK-based tech firm Comparitech. Globally, Hyderabad ranked 16th. Interestingly, 18 out of the top 20 surveilled cities on this list are in China, not a country known for citizen rights and freedoms. The only other non-Chinese city in the top 20 is London. There were only two other Indian cities in the top 50 — Chennai (21st) and Delhi (33rd).

As alarming as this sounded, the Telangana’s Director General of Police (DGP) K Mahender Reddy, a former Hyderabad police commissioner, seemed pleased with the news. In a tweet, he congratulated all “stakeholders” and communities for making the city a safer place to live in.

Do CCTVs prevent crimes?

Home minister Mahamood Ali claimed in the review meeting that the state’s crime rate had come down “drastically” due to the use of CCTV cameras. DGP Reddy agreed, saying that the cameras had helped helped reduce certain types of crimes, and helped solve others.

However, this claim is questionable. The Comparitech report, for instance, said it had found no correlation between the number of public CCTV cameras and crime or safety. A March 2019 paper by researchers from the City University of New York (CUNY), based on analysis of 40 years’ worth of data, found that CCTV cameras were associated with significant reductions in both vehicle crime and property crime in general, but no significant effects were observed for violent crime.

Telangana police’s command centre, and privacy concerns

The Telangana government is constructing a Command and Control centre for its police department at Banjara Hills, a posh locality in Hyderabad. Earlier in February, the government tweeted that the centre would be able to process footage from 100,000 CCTV cameras in under a minute.

The massive use of CCTV footage has raised major concerns among observers in the state. Independent researcher Srinivas Kodali had then accused the Telangana government  of wanting to control every corner of the state through surveillance, calling it a “draconian form of governance”. Even retired policemen seem to be jittery. M Nageswara Rao, who briefly served as in-charge director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), has criticised Telangana’s CCTV obsession. In a tweet, he said CCTV surveillance was “trampling [the] Right to Anonymity, Right to Privacy & Freedom of Movement” in public places. “State can’t indiscriminately violate citizens’ rights just because technology enables it,” he added.

The government, however, seems undeterred with all this criticism. During the Monday review meeting, Rama Rao said the Command and Control centre would lead to the safety and security levels to grow “many folds (sic)” in the city.

Facial recognition tech baked into CCTV network

Observers are also worried about Telangana’s CCTV networks’ capacity to use facial recognition technology (FRT). For instance, a few months ago, during the initial stages of the pandemic, the police started using FRT and artificial intelligence on footage to identify people who were not wearing masks. There are several individual examples as well: for instance, last year the police used CCTV footage to nab a man who had caused a nuisance in a Metro train using CCTV footage and FRT.

Telangana police also have access to the TSCOP app, which includes fingerprint and facial data of known criminals. They are known to have used the app on random citizens without warrants.

The state is also actively expanding its use of FRT, especially during the pandemic. It recently introduced FRT in degree admissions and road transport services, all within the span of a few months. It had previously been using it to disburse pensions. In January, Telangana became the first state in the country to use FRT in elections. The state’s IT secretary Jayesh Ranjan told MediaNama recently that the state might soon use FRT for distributing rations.

It should be noted that Telangana’s use of surveillance technology is happening in the complete absence of a data protection law. The central Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 is yet to be passed by the Parliament, leaving these activities in a legal grey area.

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