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Amnesty confronts facial recognition, surveillance in Hyderabad by calling for a blanket ban

Amnesty International takes aim at one of the top surveillance cities in India with a new campaign.

“Hyderabad is on the brink of becoming a total surveillance city. It is almost impossible to walk down the street without risking exposure to facial recognition,” said Matt Mahmoudi, Amnesty International’s AI and Big Data researcher in a statement. Amnesty International has criticised the usage of facial recognition in Hyderabad and has launched a campaign, in collaboration with the Internet Freedom Foundation and Article 19, that pushes for a ban on such technology.

The campaign also draws attention to the construction of a Command and Control Centre in Hyderabad which is “intended to connect the State’s vast facial recognition-capable CCTV infrastructure in real time”, the statement by Amnesty International read.

Facial recognition technology can track who you are, where you go, what you do, and who you know. It threatens human rights including the right to privacy, and puts some of the most vulnerable in society at risk. The construction of the CCC has chilling consequences for the right to freedom of expression and assembly — Quinn McKew, Executive Director at ARTICLE 19

The Hyderabad City Police has had a history of introducing tech-related invasive measures that seemingly do not have any legal backing. For instance, in 2019, officials of Hyderabad’s South Zone (Charminar and other areas) used facial recognition on random citizens. Recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave, Telangana police took up drone surveillance to maintain lockdown measures.

60% of certain Hyderabad localities under CCTV surveillance

The statement said that Amnesty International, IFF, and Article 19 mapped the locations of visible outdoor CCTV infrastructure in two sampled neighbourhoods in Hyderabad – Kala Pathar and Kishan Bagh, with the help of local volunteers.

Findings: “Based on geospatial analysis, it was estimated that in these neighbourhoods at least 530,864 and 513,683 square meters, respectively, was covered by CCTV cameras – a remarkable total of 53.7% and 62.7% of the entire area,” Amnesty International said. There have also been instances of police asking civilians to remove their masks in order to photograph them, it added.

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A look at FRT and other tech related developments in Hyderabad

Facial recognition for “suspects”: In 2019, several police stations in Hyderabad took out facial recognition drives. The then ACP of Falaknuma police station Mohammed Abdul Rafeeq had said that cops, based on intuition, approached people they thought 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.

Facial recognition for ration delivery: In the future, in Telangana, your facial data may be key to getting access to essential items such as rice, sugar, and wheat under the public distribution system (PDS). While the Indian government is still in the process of developing Aadhaar-based facial recognition, the Telangana government has identified a use case for the same and is planning to introduce it in the state’s fair price shops.

Artificial Intelligence in Hyderabad CCTVs: Around 2,000 CCTVs out of the 350,000 within the Hyderabad district limits have been enabled with artificial intelligence to monitor mask violators. Many questioned the security of the servers where this information was being stored, and many raised privacy concerns.

Drones in districts of Telangana: During the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a few district police teams in Telangana used drones, in some cases equipped with sirens, for surveillance and for keeping an eye out on lockdown violators.

Legal notice to Hyderabad City Police Commissioner: In a legal notice served by a Hyderabad-based social activist to Hyderabad City Police Commissioner Anjani Kumar, the Hyderabad Police was asked to stop using artificial intelligence-based tools, especially facial recognition systems, for enforcing lockdowns.

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

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