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Legal notice to Hyderabad Police Commissioner highlights lack of lawfulness of facial recognition measures

Image representing facial recogntition

In a legal notice served to Hyderabad City Police Commissioner Anjani Kumar, the  Hyderabad Police has been asked to stop using artificial intelligence-based tools especially facial recognition systems for enforcing lockdown.

The Hyderabad Police has been taking photographs of citizens who they suspect to be “lockdown violators” without providing any explanation with their official tabs. In this process, the cops also ask citizens to remove their masks. Although police maintain that these pictures are only taken to book petty cases of lockdown violation against a person, activists maintain that facial recognition is involved in the process.

In his notice, Hyderabad-based social activist SQ Masood claimed that this particular drive was devoid of any legal backing and asked officials to stop it. He also asked the police to delete his pictures that were taken by the cops on May 19. MediaNama has reached out to Hyderabad Police Commissioner Anjani Kumar for comments multiple times and the story will be updated when we receive a response.

Three issues highlighted in the notice

Against the Identification of Prisoners Act 1920: Masood pointed out that the subject of taking photographs by police for law enforcement is governed by the Identification of the Prisoners Act 1920, and that it does not permit security personnel to take photographs except those arrested or convicted of a crime. It also does not permit sharing such photographs with any other law enforcement agency.

Demand to remove masks is against Right to Life: Removing the masks for the photograph also increases the chances of Covid-19, and “is a shocking violation of every person’s right to life as it exposes them to this deadly airborne virus”, Masood said.

Violation of Right to Privacy: The activist said that this activity of taking photographs without any measures in place for regulating their collection, storage, and use; and without any accountability mechanisms to prevent misuse, was a violation of the Right to Privacy. “The Supreme Court of India in K.S. Puttaswamy v Union of India, (2017) 10 SCC 1 has held that any incursion of privacy must satisfy the tests of legality, necessity and proportionality, which have not been satisfied in the present instance,” he said.

The fact that police and the government in Telangana have always been eager to adopt emerging technologies in governance and policing is not something new. From deploying artificial intelligence to dabbling with facial recognition systems, these practices have earned the government accolades and controversies in equal measures.

Now with the lockdown, the adoption and usage of these technologies have been pushed to the forefront in the garb of maintaining law and order. Digital rights activists and lawyers have time and again pointed out that the country still does not have a data protection law and, that Right to Privacy is a fundamental right. They have emphasised that the police or the government have not given any clarification regarding the specifics around the usage of data when it comes to such solutions.

Under what law is Hyderabad Police collecting photos from citizens?

On May 19 (when lockdown relaxations were from 6 am to 10 am), 9.50 am, Masood was returning home from a notary’s office on his Honda Activa two-wheeler, when he was stopped at Shahran Burqa Market lane, in the Old City area of Hyderabad, by approximately 8-10 police officials.

Masood was allegedly asked to remove his mask to enable them to take his photograph on a tab. He refused to do so but the police officer photographed him along with his two-wheeler. He reminded the Commissioner in his notice that he had written a letter in this regard on May 20, wherein he asked —

  • What is the procedure being followed by Hyderabad City Police in the collection of photos from individuals?
  • Under what law is the Hyderabad Police collecting photos from individuals in the street?
  • Whether these photos are being used for facial recognition by Hyderabad police?
  • How are these photographs stored and what is the option for people to check if they are in the database and request for deletion?
  • Who has access to the photo database?
  • What privacy protections are available to citizens?
  • What accountability mechanisms are in place to file complaints against officials misusing this technology to target minorities?

At the time of the publication of the story, Masood clarified that he has not received any cognisance of the notice from Kumar or his office. He said that he has plans to approach the Telangana High Court for relief regarding the matter.

Police officials say not deploying facial recognition, but concern remains

Police officials MediaNama spoke to regarding this drive of stopping alleged lockdown violators to take their photographs, said that they were just doing it for booking a petty case against the concerned person. “We take the photo for booking the petty case. There is no facial recognition involved. We take their number too, and the challan is automatically generated on their name,” a police official said on the condition of anonymity.

However, it cannot be said with certainty if the police indeed do not use facial recognition because the TSCOP app — a police processes management platform that was launched in 2018 — uses this technology. The feature was integrated into the app to aid investigating officers in detecting cases of crime suspects and missing persons in real-time, according to a New Indian Express report.

Telangana director-general of police M Mahender Reddy was quoted by New Indian Express as saying, “When a photograph is fed into the app, lakhs of photographs maintained in our database will be scanned and within seconds the best result will be displayed in a descending order based on the photograph that is fed. All investigating officers in Telangana will use the feature which is made available on a level-playing field.”

In fact, in 2019, several police stations in Hyderabad were documented taking out facial recognition drives. The then ACP of Falaknuma police station Mohammed Abdul Rafeeq had then said that cops, based on intuition, approached people they think might be suspects. These “suspects” are then asked to verify if they are criminals or not by providing their fingerprints and facial data to the police, Rafeeq had said.

Police are also using drones and CCTVs

Outside of the ambit of Masood’s notice to the Hyderabad police commissioner, MediaNama over time has documented cases of such technologies being arbitrarily forced upon people in Telangana, and as activists point out, without any accountability.

Drones in districts of Telangana: 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. Cops are using camera-mounted drones in the districts of Vikarabad, Suryapet and Mancherial to detect small gatherings, shops that are open and vehicles that ply on the road in violation of the 6 am-10 am relaxation rule.

These drone activities come weeks after the Ministry of Civil Aviation exempted States’ Police from the UAS Rules 2021 drone regulations. However, it had also asked States to formulate standard operating procedures. Experts at the time had hoped that these SOPs would address issues of privacy.

“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,” said Manavendra Prasad, director-operations at Aviation Technology Forum of India

Artificial Intelligence in CCTVs of Hyderabad: Around 2,000 CCTVs out of the 350,000 within the Hyderabad district limits have been enabled with artificial intelligence to monitor mask violators. Earlier in 2020, across Hyderabad, only 335 cameras were AI-enabled. Concerns regarding this move were first highlighted by several activists when it was first introduced last year. Many questioned the security of the servers where this information was being stored, and many raised concerns regarding privacy.

Apart from privacy, activist Masood said that this AI-enabled CCTV ‘criminalises the poor and regular citizens”. He said, “To book an offence based on CCTV footage is a very arbitrary method. This leaves no room for discussion which would otherwise be possible if it were in person. If it were done manually, the citizen could present his case to the police.”

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