A few district police teams in Telangana are using drones, in some cases equipped with sirens, for surveillance and for keeping an eye out on lockdown violators. Since the Telangana Government imposed a lockdown across the state over 10 days ago, the state police have been actively using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) across three districts with the aim of enforcing the lockdown rules.
Cops are using camera-mounted drones in the districts of Vikarabad, Suryapet and Mancherial to detect small gatherings, shops that are open and vehicles which ply on the road in violation of the 6am-10 am relaxation rule. While police officials in Vikarabad told MediaNama that the drones were used on an experimental basis once, police officials in Suryapet and Mancherial said that the drive has been going for days. Permissions for the drone flight has been obtained from State police authority, they said.
A month ago, the Ministry of Civil Aviation exempted the Home Ministry and Union Territory/State Police from complying with the Unmanned Aerial System Rules 2021, which essentially meant that federal and state police would act as the designated agency to grant permission to various entities looking to operate drones.
The police officials told MediaNama that cases are also being booked violators, detected with the help of drones. On the one hand, the UAVs detect the names of shops and, police officials can register cases against their owners, while on the other, the drones capture the registration number of vehicles which allows the police to identify the violators.
In cases where people are gathering in groups, be in open ground or in lanes, by-lanes or gullies, the drone detects people through its camera and relays the information back to the police command centre. The command centre then passes on the message to the ground team, who in turn reach the location to book cases against these persons, police officials said.
Siren-equipped drones send citizens scampering
Videos shared by Suryapet police show siren-equipped drones detecting a few locals on a large field, located around 130 km from Hyderabad. The drone which is at a height of around 50-60 feet hovered close to four persons who were huddled and sitting on the ground. The siren was then activated, which then sent the locals scampering. In a distance, around 7 more people were seen running from the ground to a road nearby before dispersing to nearby areas. The drone detected another group of people who were parked with their bikes on a vast ground with palm trees. Police officials said that the entire district area was being covered with the help of drones over the last five days.
Video: Courtesy Suryapet Police
“The drones are being used for patrolling and also to ensure proper implementation of COVID-19 lockdown regulations. A Police siren is also embedded into the drones that are deployed over the town to check on the violators. During the lockdown drone-based patrolling is definitely a tactical force multiplier. Using it with the right strategy is definitely producing result, more particularly during lockdown where we have limited force and the area to have eyes on is huge,” Suryapet Superintendent of Police R Bhaaskaran told MediaNama.
The Mancherial Police has been deploying drones in the main town located around 240 km from Hyderabad. “Drones are being used to keep a check on small gatherings at public places during the lockdown in Mancherial town. It helps us in reaching inaccessible places and is helping us in implementing the lockdown strictly,” D Uday Kumar Reddy, DCP Mancherial told Medianama. He added that the drive was being taken up under the supervision of Ramagundam Commissioner V Satyanarayana.
In the district of Vikarabad, the Telugu news TV-channel V6 gained access to official videos from the local police, which showed that the drones found youngsters playing volleyball in a field. Upon drawing near to them, the youngsters ran. A police official told V6 [loosely translated] that under the lockdown rules, people can go out between 6 to 10 am and do all their activities while maintaining physical distance and wearing masks. But from 10 onwards, we will be at checkpoints to stop any unwanted movements. Additionally, our PCs, 4 wheelers and 2 wheelers, will also check gullies and in some cases, we will use drone cameras to monitor gullies, lanes, by-lanes, the official said.
— V6 News (@V6News) May 20, 2021
Privacy concerns myriad
Earlier when the Ministry of Civil Aviation had exempted Home Ministry and State/UT police from the UAS Rules 2021, experts that MediaNama spoke to had emphasised that the move will increase surveillance measures — especially because the concerned bodies do not have to adhere to procedural rules in the 2021 drone rules. Now, that their foreboding has come true, experts are concerned about its implications on an individual’s privacy.
Speaking to Medianama, Manavendra Prasad, director-operations at Aviation Technology Forum of India, said, “Even when the MHA (and State/UT police) was given a waiver from UAS Rules 2021 to frame its own SOPs we had pointed out that it will be important to watch out for the safeguards MHA builds to prevent violation of privacy. Technology is as good as it is used for, hence it is important that regulations built by MHA (and State/UT police) with regards to the protection of privacy of individuals should be robust and should come with very well-defined accountability norms.
It is our belief that a policy created and operationalized with an active consultation process is more effective and hence key stakeholders should be allowed to present their views. Every technology can be misused and to prevent that building relevant checks and balances within the institutional capacity will go a long way. Further, are we sure that people who use these drones including the policemen understand that they are violating privacy laws? Aspects of privacy violation should be made compulsory in training programs for users. An awareness campaign for general users should also be created — Manavendra Prasad, director-operations at Aviation Technology Forum of India
Software Freedom Law Center questioned the Telangana police on the duration of the storage of the data that has been collected through these drones. “A major issue with this is function creep. Will the data collected by drone deployment be only used for the purposes of identifying violators? How long will the data be retained with the Telangana police? It also depends on the technology they would be used to identify violators and how accurate,” said Prasanth Sugathan, legal director at SFLC.in
India does not have a data protection law- this means that citizens do not even have recourse to get their images deleted from the database if they were not violators. Imagine a situation wherein someone is sitting on their terrace or their garden and gets captured by the drone. Will they be considered violators too? If not, how can they get their data deleted or ensure that it is not shared with anyone else? This is just one aspect of it. As of today, the only recourse available is under S. 43A and 72A of the IT Act which does not adequately address the challenges arising from drone deployment, facial recognition or even use of CCTVs. The other aspect is of liability of the police department in case the data captured is misused — Prasanth Sugathan, legal director at SFLC.in