What’s the news: The Telecommunications Consultants India Ltd (TCIL) has floated a tender for a tie-up to design, supply, implement and maintain CCTV surveillance system across 385 proposed sites and 162 existing sites in Jammu union territory (UT). The notice inviting tender (NIT) is in line with an earlier tender floated by the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police to introduce heavy surveillance technologies in the conflict-ridden region. The NIT refers to the police tender as an “integral part” of its project.
This latest NIT states that the service provider working with TCIL shall provide turnkey solution for all the components as envisaged by the J&K police within a period of three years. With this, the Jammu region moves a step closer to the administrative vision of an “integrated” surveillance network.
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Why this matters: Various police departments in India are eager to increase surveillance via technologies like CCTV cameras and facial recognition technology (FRT) system under claims of “public safety.” Karnataka police even launched a programme to train officers in using drones that provide aerial surveillance. This is part of a trend of deploying technologies for policing, at a time when there are no adequate privacy and data protection laws among other missing safeguards. However, in this case, digital rights experts have been wary of such equipment in the hands of governments especially considering the recent withdrawal of the Data Protection Bill. Although even the Bill faced criticism for exempting government agencies from its penalties, the absence of any law to protect citizens’ privacy rights increases the threat of a ‘surveillance state.’
CCTVs part of a long-term plan of surveillance: In the preceding tender, the J&K police talked about appointing a system integrator (SI) to connect CCTV surveillance network with existing surveillance systems and feeds namely, 183 cameras in the Kashmir region and 218 cameras in the Jammu region.
The administrative vision is to install cameras across the UTs in all markets and bazaars frequented by locals and tourists, major schools, universities, colleges, offices, and public transport hubs. Further, the police talked about having CCTVs along all roads for viewing capability regardless of the time, especially in “sensitive” areas. Aside from this, the police also intends to install cameras along UT borders and entry-exit points.
Of course, the push for CCTV cameras is not new. In April 2021, the J&K police headquarters invited e-tenders for the supply, installation and commissioning of CCTV surveillance system at Raj Bhawan Jammu and Srinagar. Over time the government has issued many such orders, slowly covering the whole region.
In March, 2020 Piyush Goyal, Union Railways Minister, announced that Integrated Security Systems (ISS), including CCTV cameras, will be installed across India’s railway stations. This included 11 railway stations along Badgam, Anantnag, Jammutawi, Udhampur, Brijbehra, Panjgam, Awantipura, Kakapore, Pampore, Rajwansher areas of Jammu and Kashmir. By that time, the ISS had already begun surveillance in Srinagar railway stations.
Other state governments like Uttar Pradesh (UP) have also responded enthusiastically to the idea of CCTV surveillance. Under the Lucknow Safe City project, the UP government planned to create an integrated smart control room (ISCR) integrating existing surveillance systems. Although the idea was pitched as a means to ‘protect women,’ privacy and data experts worried that residents will be unaware about the surveillance and the scanning of their details without their consent.
After CCTVs comes FRT: Back in the northern most region of India, J&K police plans to introduce the FRT system in both UTs with a database that can store details of more than 10,000 people, after installing CCTVs. As per an earlier exclusive by MediaNama, this will allow the police to ‘blacklist’ individuals that they deem as suspicious or ‘whitelist’ certain people and set up “severity alerts” for them.
In the earlier tender, the J&K police said that by building CCTV infrastructure it hopes to develop further general surveillance via Automatic Number Plate Recognition System (ANPR), Command Centre and FRT, etc.
The key components of the project were focused on 24×7 CCTV monitoring of public areas frequently visited by citizens and which are “susceptible to crime.” Further, it planned to integrate location-based services and crime and criminal databases with real time CCTV feeds for resolving citizen safety issues at public places. These real-time videos will be analysed after which authorities will create “actionable warnings/alerts for preventive and curative actions.”
The police claimed such video analysis using cameras that have ANPR and FRT will help with crowd gathering, object identification (Colour) and tracking, unidentified object and stone pelting.
This is similar to a tender floated by the Odisha government in April this year that called for FRS and video analytics to ‘track people’ and ‘recognise patterns of demonstration in crowds’ among other things. At the time, experts speaking to MediaNama talked about the need for a regulatory framework and a comprehensive and harmonised regulation of CCTVs to mitigate privacy risks.
Similarly, the Meghalaya government released an app in July 2021 that used FRT to verify whether pensioners from the finance department are alive. It said in a press release that the plan was to replace existing pensioner verification with the new technology. However, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) wrote to the government and pointed out how the app violated the Puttaswamy judgement and the right to privacy. Further, the IFF argued that FRT’s error rate in such a context could be considerably high.
Moreover, it’s not just state governments that are eyeing surveillance technologies. In September 2021, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) issued a tender for an Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS). This was a revised version of a 2019 tender that as per its request for proposal (RFP) intended to modernise “the police force, information gathering, criminal identification, verification and its dissemination among various police organisations.”
However, the announcement raised many concerns about privacy and state surveillance. Such was the criticism against the AFRS that the NCRB had to revise the proposal eight times by March 2020. By July 2020, it dropped the CCTV integration clause from the tender. The latest version detailed capabilities of recognising masked individuals, integration with state FRT systems, and new bidder requirements that favoured Indian companies.
What does the J&K police say about data security? Concerning data security, J&K police state that the service provider “shall maintain the highest level of secrecy, confidentiality and privacy with regard thereto.” Further, it acknowledged the need for security of video feeds and the overall system and recognised the following as security breaches:
- Availability of Video feeds to any other user than those authorized by J & K PHQ, and provided passwords
- Availability of any report / data to any other user than those authorized by the J & K PHQ
- Successful hacking of any active component on the network by any unauthorized user
- Or any other privacy rule is broken as per Govt. of India guidelines
However, following NIT tenders in this project do not mention protection of people’s data.
Experts cite a need to be vigilant in the use of surveillance technology
Speaking to MediaNama, Anushka Jain, Associate Policy Counsel (Surveillance & Transparency) at the IFF, said that serious use of surveillance technology in any situation is a matter of concern. However, in this case, the usage is happening in the absence of a legal framework.
“This raises more concerns because then there is no accountability framework when misuse happens, there’s also no guidelines which have to be followed. So misuse will not even be caught in certain situations,” said Jain.
Further, the expert pointed out that the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is already very tense. As such, the use of surveillance by any law enforcement needs to be “carefully evaluated for the benefits and harms that it will bring and then it should be used.” However, Jain doubted that such an assessment has been done.
In many parts of the world, the use of FRT for police work has already been banned. A UK court in 2020 ruled that the local police cannot use FRT. Similarly, the USA also banned the use of this technology.
“It’s very important to remember that that is an area where a lot of allegations of human rights abuses already exist. In such a situation, if such technology is being used, we have to be very vigilant as to how it’s being used and to ensure that misuse does not happen,” said Jain.
Similarly, Divyam Nandrajog, cybersecurity researcher and lawyer at the Delhi High Court, told MediaNama that the use of surveillance technology requires a balance between privacy and public safety & security.
“If CCTV [data] is being collected, it’s being analyzed and it’s being stored for a limited period to assist investigators later on if crime were to be reported, that is one thing. If you are now applying facial recognition, that’s going to give you the capability of tracking people,” he said.
The combination of CCTV with FRT allows the police to track people in real time. The FRT tracks people with a higher degree of simplicity and specificity. At the same time, the computer or algorithm used has to examine all faces that come before it. For this reason, Nandrajog said that there must be a debate on the aforementioned balance.
“But as to where the balance itself lies, that’s an open question. I think that’s dependent on both the facility you’re trying to protect, the public benefit involved, and what are the trade offs that you’re willing to pay in terms of privacy, I think that’s a very case-specific situation. You can’t apply it even on a city-wide level,” he said.
The lawyer went on to stress the need for a strong Data Privacy Act that places constraints on what the state “can and cannot do even in the name of national security and public order.” Moreover, the legal framework should work on the basic principles of privacy that ensure there is no over policing of any segment, into its criteria.
“This framework cannot just be an office memorandum or an office guideline. It has to be something more than that. It has to be a legal framework that somebody can then enforce in court if it is violated,” he said.
Previous attempts at surveillance
Surveillance of WhatsApp groups: Over the years, the state police has adopted various tactics for surveillance. On March 1, 2019, the region’s Kupwara district passed an order that directed group admins of all “public or community WhatsApp groups” to register with the DC’s office. The document mentioned other social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter but particularly focused on WhatsApp groups.
Referring to the move as a means to curb rumor-mongering in light of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the police formed a Media Certification and Monitoring Committee. The body was to monitor distribution of content on all media platforms, effectively restricting free speech and conversations. Further, WhatsApp group admins were instructed to take a screenshot of any fake or baseless statement and remove the concerned group member. That person in turn would have to give “a suitable clarification” for the content.
If deemed to be a ‘false’ post, the content would be reported to the nearest police station. Although the order did not specify if this committee is formed for the entire state, the registration of WhatsApp groups is not new for Jammu and Kashmir. It was in 2016 that the then-state government ordered that all ‘WhatsApp news groups’ register with the District Social Media Center.
Like with the 2019 order, there was no clarity on how the state machinery planned to differentiate between news groups and informal WhatsApp groups. What it did mention was that group admins were responsible for all posts and “any irresponsible remarks/deals leading to untoward incidents.” It may be noted that in the same year, the Centre talked about setting up a media cell that tracks content online and ‘counters’ news and comments that are negative or provocative.
On top of all this, there are also the repeated internet shutdowns in the UTs. Access Now, a digital rights advocacy group, in its 2021 report stated that Jammu and Kashmir residents experienced at least 85 internet shutdowns in 2021.
Most of these shutdowns were part of “counterterrorism” measures by the state government. However, in the name of law and order the locals suffered one of the longest internet shutdowns (551 days) of 2021. It may be mentioned that Kashmir contributes the most to India’s internet shutdowns.
What’s worse is that recently even the Centre has flagged interest in a form of indirect surveillance. Last year in December, a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs asked the Centre to block virtual private networks (VPNs) that allow for internet anonymity. While the Committee argued that this will help track down cyber criminals, there are concerns about the move’s impact on India’s workforce, which includes J&K’s already heavily censored residents.
Border control cited as rationale for surveillance network
While making its case for a UT-wide surveillance, the J&K police talked about the “growing needs and urge to maintain law and order in the UT.” Authorities said that as the northern most region of India, the UT shares national borders with Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and an international border with Pakistan.
Aside from this, the police said, “The UT is in constant threat of militancy and insurgency activities for a very long time… PHQ has accordingly undertaken several initiatives in the past, to enhance the surveillance systems. In one of such initiative, PHQ has installed CCTV cameras at various cities of UT, like Kashmir, Jammu and Samba etc. It has also set up a Police Control Room (PCR) in Srinagar and Jammu city.”
By introducing a UT-wide CCTV Surveillance project, the police said it planned to have Geographic Information Systems (GIS) based CCTV cameras connect with Zonal Command Control Centres (Z3Cs) and District Command Control Centre (D3C) for an efficient management of law & order situation in the UT.
However, as far as maintaining law and order in border areas goes, Nandrajog was not convinced that CCTV cameras with FRT would prove to be useful in border regions.
“If you’re trying to catch intruders whose faces you haven’t seen, your FRT will at best be able to tell you, “hey, I haven’t seen this person before.” But to be able to say that, it would have to be familiar with literally everyone else in that area,” he said.
This means that all residents will have to have their facial details in the system so they don’t keep getting flagged up as intruders. Accordingly, the FRT will start tracking everything, said Nandrajog.
Demand for AI surveillance grows: Over time, departments interested in such technology have also turned their attention towards Artificial Intelligence surveillance. In August, the Union Ministry of Defence released a report titled “Artificial Intelligence in Defence” that discusses face recognition system under disguise (FRSD). This system essentially tries “to identify anti-social elements with or without disguise in low-resolution surveillance camera feeds.”
“The algorithm has been trained in such a way that the face recognition system can see through several disguises like face-masks, beard, moustache, wigs, sunglasses, head-scarves, monkeycaps, hats, etc. Apart from the disguises, the system also considers different lighting conditions, shadows on face, crowd occlusions, etc.,” said the report.
Further, it talked about a fake news detector, a drone for target detection and softwares that analyse emotions.
The government might argue that such security measures will ease the strain on India’s police and defence officials. However, with CCTVs being installed even in local bazaars, especially in a region that has suffered widespread internet shutdowns raises serious digital rights concerns. Currently, neither the CCTV surveillance related tenders neither the Ministry of Defence have adequately taken these concerns into account. The introduction of advanced technologies like FRT and AI based surveillance will have significant ramifications for the entire region considering security and privacy among other things.
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