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Explainer: Learn about Chennai’s Mega City Policing a.k.a. ‘Surveillance’ Project

In a bid to maintain law and order, Chennai police’s surveillance network may threaten people’s privacy rights

Did you know that by 2021, publications had already listed Chennai in Tamil Nadu as the city with the most CCTV surveillance in the world? As per The Hindu, the South Asia Journal said that Chennai had as many as 657 cameras per square kilometre – topping even Hyderabad’s record (480 cameras per square kilometre).

At the time, the city police said it planned to install more CCTV devices under the Nirbhaya Fund. However, it wasn’t until December 2022 that the Union Home Ministry actually sanctioned the funds to carry out what the police called the “Mega City Policing project”. According to the Times of India, the central government sanctioned ₹ 44 crore to the state government for the current financial year. Using this, the city police will procure 750 vehicle tracking devices, 2,900 surveillance cameras and 7 drone units. Sounds very futuristic, doesn’t it? Yet, you’ll be surprised to know that this project started as far back as 2015.

What is the Mega City Policing project?

Envisaged under the Modernization of State Police Forces (MPF) scheme, the project provides the latest technology “to tackle internal security challenges”. It was implemented under various safe city projects of Chennai as part of the Nirbhaya Fund via:

  1. CCTV camera surveillance powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  2. AI-driven video analytics for proactive monitoring and timely support/deployment of vehicles using Automatic Vehicle Location System (AVLS)
  3. On-demand Aerial Surveillance using drones & mobile command control centre

Considering news coverage so far, it appears that the police are nearing the final step of aerial surveillance.

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CCTV creates a surveillance network: As per the tender re-released by the Greater Chennai Police in December, network connectivity is one of the most important components of the project. This is where CCTVs come in. Largely, the tender called for two types of CCTVs.

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The first type is connected to a wired network that sends the video feeds to local data centres, DRC and Control Centre. The second type of camera uses 4G/5G-based networks to transport feeds to the desired locations, including the relevant police official’s mobile devices. As mentioned before, this leg of the project seems to be nearly complete, especially with the new batch of CCTVs on the way.

Facial recognition already a popular tool: When the project mentioned video analytics, it largely meant facial recognition system (FRS) and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) for indexing common objects/people. The police stated in the tender that the FRS with over 70 percent accuracy may be used for tracking people.

Officials can compare people’s faces against images in passports, Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS), prison data, or any other database available with police/other entity. The FRS may even use pre-recorded CCTV footage to find “blacklisted” individuals.

In fact, the tender states that the FRS can “add photographs obtained from newspapers, raids, sent by people, sketches etc. to the criminal’s repository tagged for sex, age, scars, tattoos, etc. for future searches.”

Moreover, police authorities can enable handheld phones to “capture a face on the field and get the matching result from the backend server”. If this sounds familiar, it is because there are already reports of such incidents in recent times.

Chennai police’s brag about using FRS: Remember, in November 2022 the police arrested nine history-sheeters reported to be absconding and facing non-bailable warrants using FRS and records to visit the homes of the history sheeters. Then on December 8, 2022, the Chennai police confirmed on Twitter that officers were scanning the faces of innocent citizens on streets near Thillai Ganga Nagar to “identify criminals instantaneously”. Instead of informing the recorded people, the police thanked them for their cooperation and said “nothing to worry”.

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Instances like these indicate that despite claiming to need more funds, the Chennai police are already well on their way to creating and using a police surveillance network in the city—with or without people’s knowledge.

Aerial surveillance may be 2023’s goal: Although the original tender only provides technical specifications for police drone units, the Chennai Police in 2021 released a tender that wanted to establish a Drone Police Unit comprising of three types of drones.

As per this tender, the police sought six Multi-Rotor drones each containing an HD camera with thermal/night vision and live video streaming. It would also have a loudspeaker for public announcements. Further, the police wanted two Hybrid drones and one lifeguard drone. Moreover, the video collected from these drones could also be processed for facial detection/recognition (optional), ANPR, indexing for common objects, secluded/dark area monitoring, etc.

Now it seems that with the replenished finances, the police plan to bring in seven such drone units to ensure public security.

But what about data security? And privacy?

At least for data security, the Mega City Policing project does have provisions that state, “under no circumstances the data accumulated and processed by Control Centre should be compromised”. It asks the System Integrator to make provisions to implement the required security framework to protect all the data stored in the platform.

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Similarly, regarding CCTVs, the tender calls for standardised signs informing the public about the existence of CCTV cameras in relevant locations.

“This will bring about the transparency on installation of CCTV cameras and no one would be able to later complaint for breach of privacy,” said the tender.

However, there are no safeguards against the hand-held devices that will scan people’s biometric data ‘to verify criminals or suspects’. As previous reportage has shown, residents aren’t even told why their data is being recorded. This is disconcerting, especially when considering additional laws like the recently passed Criminal Procedure (Identification) Bill, 2022. It allows the law enforcement agencies to process biometrics of even suspects and store it for as long as 75 years.

So, if the police are scanning people to ensure they are not criminals, does this make them suspects? Does this mean the personal data of most residents of Chennai will be kept with the police for approximately an entire human life just because of a police officer’s discretion?

Is it even worth the effort?

The crux of this whole situation is whether surveillance technology will actually help the police in addressing crimes.

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As per the Crimes in India 2021 report by the National Crime Records Bureau, more crimes against senior citizens were committed in 2021 (423 crimes) than in 2020 (321 crimes) in Chennai. Accordingly, 48 cases were disposed of by the police in 2021, and 20 cases were disposed of in 2020. However, 2019 reported the highest number of crimes (552 crimes) in the city with the highest number of police disposals (84 cases) over the last three years.

Meanwhile, crimes against scheduled castes went from 8 crimes in 2019 to 12 crimes in 2020 to 23 crimes in 2021. Yet the cases disposed of by the police show that all cases from 2019 were disposed of by the police while only 4 cases were disposed of in 2020 and 2021 each. Such data does not seem to suggest that surveillance technology is helping Chennai police fight crime any differently.

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

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Written By

I'm interested in the shaping and strengthening of rights in the digital space. I cover cybersecurity, platform regulation, gig worker economy. In my free time, I'm either binge-watching an anime or off on a hike.

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