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How facial recognition surveillance tactics led this Hyderabad resident to hold back on his freedoms

MediaNama speaks to S.Q. Masood about his petition against the Hyderabad police and how their surveillance methods have impacted his life.

“I was not a criminal and was still stopped by the police,” says S.Q. Masood, a resident of Old City of Hyderabad, who has taken the city police to court by challenging the use of facial recognition technology (FRT) on innocent citizens without their consent and in violation of their fundamental right to privacy, liberty and right to equality.

Masood, a prominent social activist, first encountered the face-scan activity of the Hyderabad police on March 19, 2021, when the city police’s surveillance tactics were in full swing. He was stopped by 8-10 local police officers near Shahran Burqa Market in Old Hyderabad while returning home, appropriately masked.

At the time of the pandemic, the police asked him to remove his mask to click a picture on their phone. When he refused to do so, the phone-warriors took Masood’s picture without his consent and with no information whatsoever. He stresses on the fact that he was complying with the Covid-19 lockdown rules, was not issued any challan, and had done nothing to be treated as a suspect or be subjected to police action.

MediaNama spoke to Masood to know more about what led him to court and how the Hyderabad police’s rigorous surveillance methods have impacted his day-to-day life.

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What were his fears and what led him to court?

“Number one, taking my photograph without my consent. Number two, taking a photograph in the tablet where the TSCOP app is in-built with facial recognition technology and I was concerned about who and where it will be misused by. What if the photograph was mismatched with other databases? So, they can detain me, they can target me, they can profile me. I had no idea and these were my fears,” says Masood.

Masood’s apprehensions stem from the fact that the Hyderabad police has been actively using technology for their rigorous search operations — the ‘Mission Chabutra’ and ‘Cordon and Search Operations’. These developments have raised concerns of mass-tracking and military-style search and surveillance in the city. Police activities under these missions have been well-documented and have shown how the police has notoriously resorted to methods such as Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping techniques to identify crime hotspot areas, fingerprint scans and facial scans via the infamous TSCOP app (used by Telangana police to track suspected and missing criminals), alongside CCTVs with artificial intelligence to carry out search operations.

Further, the Hyderabad police’s TSCOP app got its facial recognition feature in 2018 to assist the police in identifying crime suspects in real time by matching the facial data with Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System (CCTNS) database. The CCTNS database is a comprehensive repository of information on convicted criminals, history-sheeters, terror suspects, among others, across India and is maintained by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The active linkage and comparison of CCTNS databases with facial recognition technology-enabled tablets of the law enforcement agencies in the state and local police officers is what concerned Masood, especially when it was not clear whether his picture was taken for facial recognition or not.

A lack of clarity over the reason for scanning people’s face, and where exactly it can be used, urged him to issue a legal notice to the Hyderabad Police Commissioner on May 2021 seeking information on the legality of using Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) by the police and deletion of his photographs. When he did not receive a response from the authorities, he decided to file a petition, on behalf of Telangana residents, at the Telangana High Court with support from the Internet Freedom Foundation.

“I have stopped going to protests and religious gatherings”

Since January 2022, Masood has taken precautions to avoid being captured by CCTV cameras in public spaces, which he says, have been increasingly installed since the 2013 Dilsukhnagar bomb blast in Hyderabad.  In 2021, around 2000 CCTVs in Greater Hyderabad were enabled with artificial intelligence by the city police to identify mask violators, MediaNama had reported. At the time, there were 375,000 lakh cameras fixed within the Hyderabad district limits and 650,000 cameras installed in the Hyderabad, Cyberabad and the Rachakonda Commissionerates collectively.

The police’s reliance on CCTV footages — to target residents appearing in visuals from an area where an incident has occurred — has primarily discouraged Masood from attending large gatherings.

“I have stopped going to religious gatherings and processions near Char Minar and to the Mecca Masjid to pray, because there are cameras all around over there. If there’s a trouble there and I am seen in any CCTV video, they can target or harass me. Since last year I have been more particular and careful. In case something happens, my presence at a wrong place at the wrong time can be harmful for me,” he says.

Masood says people’s fundamental right to privacy and freedom of movement has been restricted. What was once perceived as a routine check concerning traffic rules or lockdown rules violation, people are now concerned about police’s actions of taking pictures and fingerprints without consent. In the past, police has stated in multiple instances that they are taking pictures of “suspects” to identify ex-criminals or history sheeters and terror suspects but never stated the criteria on the basis of which random people were suspected to be involved in a crime.

Under the Chabutra mission, Masood says, the police has been scanning pictures of youngsters who move out at night, are found walking alone or waiting outside their house. He informs that there are higher chances of these youngsters being monitored in future or booked in any petty offences if they are profiled twice, or more, from their areas.

“Even an ex-criminal has the right to liberty and to roam freely in the city once he is acquitted or bailed by the court. You can’t disturb a person without any sufficient reason. There is no law which says that you can’t roam at night after 12 am and this is in violation of right to liberty,” says Masood adding that the people often end up getting threatened by the police.

“I think there are some concerns in the public in general, but they’re unable to raise their voices and their concerns openly due to fear. And largely their target is poor neighbourhoods, so they can’t resist or they can’t deny,” says Masood. His discussions with members of local youth organisations have initiated a conversation among the public regarding the potential dangers of such actions without checks and balances.

Further, Masood has also stopped attending or participating in protests or any public activity carried out by the civil society members. According to Masood, the use of high-resolution cameras for video surveillance by the police during the anti-CAA protests to identify and track protesters, discouraged him from partaking in such events, thus, limiting his freedom of speech and expression. Though not sure whether the protest database is compared with facial recognition data, he says the police definitely has pictures of people on the site.

“The surveillance system is designed in a manner that it can instill fear in protestors’ minds. This is where we say that our democratic rights, including right to privacy, liberty and freedom of expression [are] being curtailed,” he observes.

Which communities are mainly affected by Facial Recognition Technology in India?

The Hyderabad police has been using GIS crime mapping tools to identify locations for conducting their surveillance operations using the facial recognition system. A report by The News Minute reveals the shocking nature of the Cordon and Search Operations, under which slum pockets usually become the target spot for police raids in complete violation of the privacy of the residents.

The search involves collecting fingerprints, Aadhar data, vehicle ID, and other personal information to cross-verify with their database on a software called Papillon and check for the individual’s criminal records and pending challans.

“All these patrolling officers have these tablets with TSCOP app. Few of the slum dwellers have said they took their pictures too. After entering mobile number details in their tablet, they extract complete details of that person, such as name and address. Earlier, they used to have lathis in their hand, now they are carrying tablets,” says Masood.

These operations, according to Masood, are being conducted mainly in poor neighbourhoods of Old Hyderabad, where people from the Muslim, Dalit and other communities primarily become target for suspicions. These are the people who do not have the resources to fight their case in court or resist the police’s actions.

As someone who actively works with several NGOs for the rights of the marginalised and minority communities, Masood has been observing the police’s excessive methods of law enforcement in the not-so-posh areas of Hyderabad. According to him, “It’s mainly a class bias issue. This can be said with a simple example: the police will never click a picture of a person in a car directly, but a biker in a poor neighbourhood will be easily subjected to it.”

The selection of crime hotspots using technology, based on existing data, further entrenches the bias in the database too, leading to aggressive search and profiling of the same communities and neighbourhoods. A study by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy titled ‘The use of Facial Recognition Technology for Policing in Delhi’ to understand potential discrimination in the use of FRT found that, “The spatial peculiarities of policing – which are really a reflection of the social biases of policing – can play out with the use of FRT as well. Areas considered ‘criminal’, such as slums, can be over-surveilled and over-policed. Policing approaches that treat small crimes with overwhelming responses could be strengthened with the use of precise surveillance tools like FRT.”

Further, FRT systems generate a list of probable matches for an individual’s photograph from an existing database, in this case the CCTNS database, but the final match is done by a human analyst that is the police in charge. This shoots up chances for biases to creep into final result, which can be detrimental to specific communities such as the Black community in the United States, Uighur community in China and the Palestinian community in the West Bank.

In India, historical policing of marginalised communities and human biases related to caste, class and religion largely make members of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and Muslims communities vulnerable to dangers of FRT surveillance. Analysis based on the National Crime Records Bureau have repeatedly highlighted the over-representation of these communities in prisons, many of whom are undertrials and are languishing in jails due to lack of resources to fight their case. “This is designed for surveillance. And because the historical factors and other biases of the policing. Largely this will be used against the particular groups,” says Masood.

Is it defeating the purpose of using tech for public security?

Is Hyderabad turning into a police state with aggressive use of surveillance tools? Masood says no. According to him the Hyderabad police’s efforts to modernise their operations with new technology is a welcome step, but this must be done with transparency and accountability mechanisms in place.

This, he says, comes with building confidence among the public with respect to information on the technology used, acquiring their consent wherever required and enabling them to know what is being done with their personal data. Currently, no such public information clearly defines the legality and reasonability of random search operations that are conducted in public spaces — a point that was elaborated on in Masood’s petition.

Masood observes that the human informants’ network of the police department has now been replaced by tech. He stresses on the role of this network in providing valuable humanistic insights to the police in providing details of anticipated crime in an area. This, he says, is not possible by tech tools.

“Technology can be used as a tool or during the process, but not to prevent crime. Technology can help them in processing, in maintaining records and identifying the person who was involved in the crime. FRT can be used in rare cases where you do not need manual policing or human intelligence or do not have access to it,” he adds.

While Masood believes that the Hyderabad police’s boost for using tech tools for their day-to-day activities is more about modernising their operations, and may even be well-intended, they are using public spaces as testing grounds for the technology. “So now we are the ‘lab-rats’ for experiments. What worries me is that if the political regime changes, this infrastructure can be misused against a particular group or community.”

Moreover, Masood raises an important point that the local police officers generally have little to no knowledge about the potential dangers of using FRT. While they are commanded to carry out specific operations using surveillance tools, “they are not given any orientation about the dangers of these tools”.

“These local officers are the ones who deal with people in their day-to-day life. They are given orders from the Secretariat or district headquarters on who has to be profiled. Local officers have little powers and don’t know the intensity and the challenges for using this technology,” says Masood.

This leaves little room for seeking accountability and redressal of citizens’ grievances. Further, irrespective of these challenges, harassment of innocent citizens by suspecting them as criminals and restricting their freedoms even when there is no prohibitory order issued by the police, he suggests, is a complete failure of the system and the police’s claims of safety.

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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Curious about privacy, surveillance developments and the intersection of technology with education, caste and welfare rights.

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