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Madhya Pradesh police increases usage of 360 degree mobile surveillance vehicles, experts divided over implications on privacy

You are reading it here first: Madhya Pradesh is looking to increase the ambit of the usage of mobile surveillance vehicles (MSVs). MSVs are police cars retrofitted with surveillance systems such as CCTV cameras that traverse in select cities of the state. These vehicles provide a 360-degree view of the areas that the car passes through with the help of four CCTV cameras installed on top of the vehicles.

In May, the Madhya Pradesh police issued a tender for installing 35 Tata Safari Storm vehicles with CCTV cameras that will be deployed in 10 cities of the State. They are

  • Bhopal: 5*
  • Indore: 5
  • Ujjain: 5
  • Jabalpur: 5
  • Gwalior: 5
  • Sagar: 2
  • Katni: 2
  • Khandwa: 2
  • Singrauli: 2
  • Dewas: 2
    *Figures denote number of camera-mounted vehicles

Each vehicle will have a pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) camera — a CCTV camera capable of remote direction and zoom control — installed at the front and three fixed cameras on the left, right and back of the vehicle. The recorded videos and photographs from the vehicles will be broadcast live in the State police’s data centre, the tender said.

This is not the first time that these vehicles will be deployed in Madhya Pradesh. Although MP police officials said that these vehicles run across the city, they are especially useful in places where there is no or less amount of CCTV coverage.

According to a cached document, hosted on the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy (SVPNPA) website as part of a prior presentation, Madhya Pradesh police have used such vehicles during the Simhasth Kumbh Mahaparv festival held between April 22, 2016, to May 21, 2016. In that festival, apart from the MSV vehicles, 14 facial recognition cameras, 7 ANPR cameras, drones were used in Ujjain city.

What does the MP police require?

  • According to the tender, the PTZ camera on the vehicles should be mounted on a pneumatic vertical lift-like apparatus. In simpler terms, the camera will be installed on a vertical steel structure, that is attached to a mounting frame on the car. “The frame should be installed on the exiting of the vehicle with no (zero) perforation/welding on the vehicle body or chassis,” the tender said.
  • The PTZ camera will be at a heigh of 20 inches from the top of the vehicle and can be expanded to 30 inches. The MP police said that positioning controls should be accessible from the car dashboard.
  • The three fixed cameras will have a resolution of 720 pixels, wireless/4G/Wi-Fi compatible, and should be able to record video and images and store them in 500 GB storage available in each vehicle
  • There will be an 80AH VAN battery to be installed in the vehicle that will work as a power backup. Apart from that, the battery should have the capacity and arrangement to be charged through three alternate sources
  • There will also be a 14″ LCD monitor in the vehicle
  • The PTZ and the 3 fixed cameras will have to be weatherproof, vandal-proof, jerk and jitter-free

Camera mounted police vehicles on the rise

It is important to note that police vehicles with cameras mounted are not a new thing in the country. These surveillance measures are being slowly introduced in the country in the garb of police modernisation.

One of the earliest instances of such vehicles being introduced was in Mumbai, for the Mumbai city police in 2016. As part of the police modernisation programme, a van, fitted with a large LED screen, five cameras (one of which can rotate 360 degrees) was introduced in the city. “This is a smaller version of the police control room. IT will be able to tap into feeds from the network of CCTV cameras,” the then Mumbai police commissioner Dattatray Padsalgikar was quoted by Hindustan Times as saying.

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In the same year, another HT report said that PCR vans in Noida have been installed with high-resolution cameras. The report said that Noida police had started mounting cameras on police control room (PCR) vans to capture movements of suspects and police officers during raids, at checkpoints, during protests and other emergencies.

Recently the Telangana police inaugurated three cameras mounted vehicles and distributed CCTV maintenance kits to 19 technical persons, according to a report in the Hindu.

Experts divided on implications of privacy

Surveillance vehicles providing 360-degree view may not be a new thing for the police, but it is necessary to raise questions on its implications of privacy, especially because Right to Privacy in India is a Fundamental Right according to the Supreme Court. Experts MediaNama talked to had varied views regarding the subject. While some considered that surveillance through mounted CCTV cameras does not swim into the ken of data protection, others urged the country to pass the Personal Data Protection Bill as soon as possible.

Kritika Seth, Founding Partner, Victoriam Legalis – Advocates & Solicitors said that although this endeavour can be a helpful tool for law enforcement especially during the pandemic, unwarranted appropriation of such data, in the backdrop of the absence of adequate legislation to protect data is also quite an alarming issue

“Given that the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 continues to remain in the pipeline for a considerable period of time, this instance further reinforces the fact, that data protection laws and strengthening of mechanisms for the protection of privacy of individuals is a matter of substantial contemporary significance and the government and concerned stakeholders need to act on it at the earliest to ensure that no major mishap relating to such personal data or private and sensitive information occurs in future,” Seth said.

Echoing a similar opinion, Shweta Mohandas, a policy officer with the Bengaluru-based Centre for Internet and Society, said, “The fact that this is a mobile unit means that the van could take closer images or videos of people and can even follow people who they consider to be suspicious. This not just increases the scope and capacity for surveillance, it leaves us with questions about how this data will be stored, for how long it will be stored and to who this data will be shared.”

She added, “Although the current draft of the PDP Bill provides for certain exemptions to the State based on the principle of necessity, it does provide some responsibilities on companies who provide equipment and or software to the states.”

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Siddharth Jain, Co-Founding Partner, PSL Advocates & Solicitors does not agree. Jain said, “Privacy is, indeed, the burning topic, lately, and rightfully so. However, not every action can fall within the ambit of data protection. It is, either, because the action has been taken in larger good or because it doesn’t tick the boxes required. In my opinion, the action of police doing the surveillance through mounted CCTV cameras in areas that do not have them installed doesn’t swim into the ken of data protection. Firstly, surveillance of the locality has nothing to do with the data of an individual. In fact, it is just an alternative for the CCTV cameras which could have otherwise been installed. We cannot breathe hot and cold in the same breath. Secondly, this action, clearly, entails the security of the people and, hence, is justified.”

What does the PDP bill say?

The collection of CCTV footage/data is definitely collection of ‘personal data’ which comes under the ambit of PDP Bill, 2019. However, the law enforcement machinery is entitled to various exemptions from the provisions of PDP Bill in its performance of the sovereign duties such as those to prevent crimes, and which are in the interest of the country, or public order, provided that such powers are exercised following a procedure, safeguards and oversight mechanism. – Rishi Anand, Partner, DSK Legal

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

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