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More steps towards a surveillance state? Karnataka police to learn drone piloting for ‘law and order’

This is yet another instance of police in India seeking deployment of advanced technologies for surveillance

What’s the news: The Karnataka police on August 29 inaugurated two weeks of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV/drone) training programme for 27 officers and staff of western zone districts.

“Karnataka state is the first in the country to undertake this training for police officers, and for the first time in the state, a team of experts from the Internal Security Department, Bangalore, is imparting training to the officer personnel of the western zone district,” said a press release by the police department.

Why it matters: While the state police may claim to be the first to impart such training to its police,  law enforcements in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Telangana and other states already use drones. Experts have criticised the use of such surveillance technologies by the police, citing privacy issues. In the absence of data and privacy protection laws, the use of drones and similar equipment by police points to an emerging ‘surveillance state.’

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Karnataka police to learn about drones: Officers from Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, Uttara Kannada and Chikkamagaluru districts and will be participating in the training inaugurated by Devjyoti Ray, IPS, IGP West Zone. Personnel will be trained on the use of UAV/drone and its accessories and drone operation for maintenance of law and order regarding drone, its types and related legalities.

What is worth considering is the manner in which the drones will be operated for the sake of “law and order.” In January 2021, MediaNama’s exclusive report revealed that the Delhi police used drones to survey farmers protesting at city borders without the authorisation of the Civil Aviation Ministry or the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), which regulate drone use.

Similarly, in 2020, Kerala and Telangana governments deployed drones across several districts to monitor Covid-19 violations. MediaNama had reported that there wasn’t much clarity on how the police ensured that drone operators deleted recorded footage from their end. Still, 160-170 people were arrested within three days for violating norms at the time.

Such instances highlight how on-ground police officers enjoy a lot of discretion in using technologies to carry out mass surveillance.

In Uttar Pradesh (UP), the government introduced the Lucknow Safe City Project last year wherein it wanted to deploy drones to survey terraces and rooftops of residents. Like with the Karnataka police’s reasoning for the training programme, the UP government said the drones will help “combat crimes against women.”

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However, Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi at the time argued that using drones for surveillance is “unconstitutional” because it violates privacy. He demanded that if such equipment is used for security, then a data protection law should be brought in place first. Like many advocates of privacy, he argued that the data from the drones can be used to ‘curtail his fundamental rights.’

Despite these persisting concerns, the Karnataka event continues with officers learning how to fly drones in ‘sensitive’ areas, forested hills and hilly areas during night time. The programme is estimated to conclude in the second week of September.

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