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Greater Chennai Police to set up surveillance cameras on 635 vehicles

The latest tender coupled with a previous call for an ANPR system raises the question of how the local police intends to navigate India’s recently passed data protection law

Greater Chennai Police (GCP) plans to set up a cloud-based surveillance system to monitor the general public’s and vehicles’ movements by installing cameras on 635 vehicles across police limits. While a similar tender for an automatic number-plate recognition (ANPR) system was already floated by the GCP in February 2023, it is interesting to note that neither of these tenders talk about consent or data erasure rights of citizens.

Police and disaster management to have access to camera feed: As per a tender shared by the GCP, the cameras will be used to create a Wi-Fi dashboard that will allow police officers in the area to view livestream of the cameras from their phone and remote devices. A Control Centre (CC) will be able to view all the surveillance feed and alerts.

In case of a disaster or failure of the data centre, the video feed will “automatically switch to the Disaster Recovery Centre.” This centre will take over the function of the Data Centre. Even in normal situations, the data in the data centre will be replicated in Disaster Recovery centre automatically in real time.

Camera network to be used for general surveillance: The dashboard cameras will be functional for a year and will be used for activities like “evidence management, monitoring of patrolling vehicles and use as general surveillance.”

This means that not just public vehicles but the movements of the patrolling police vehicles and their surrounding vehicles will be recorded as well. Similarly, the system will record ‘inside video’ to collect data about driver behaviour. The system will also have a central monitoring of surveillance video and behavior of the accused while bringing the person to the station. The entity who gets the tender will have to arrange a two-way communication between patrolling vehicles to reach crime areas in time.

Additional responsibilities: The selected bidder will also have to ensure the system provides on-demand and periodic reports for vehicle utilization, driver behaviour, and additional analytics, suitable for surveillance, etc.

Mapping and AI features: The cameras will support Google offline map, Chinese mapping services Gaode and Baidu as well as a raster map – a kind of digital map whose format is particularly useful in representing continuous spatial phenomena like elevation, temperature, or land use. Other operational features included will be real-time and real-location video monitoring, vehicle history track search, vehicles passing search and positioning trace. The system also has an option to support face recognition cameras if needed.

Data stored for seven days: The surveillance and analysis data collected by these cameras will be kept in the cloud Data Centre for seven days. Similarly, the data will be stored locally for 30 days.

What’s the need for the dashboard system? As mentioned before, the GCP has already floated a tender for an ANPR system across 50 locations within its jurisdiction that includes facial recognition features. In fact many of the features mentioned in this latest tender were already included in the ANPR tender. This raises the question of the potential benefits for the government in using such persistent surveillance systems. As Chennai city stands now with its elaborate CCTV networks, drone policing units and now possibly vehicle tracking systems, the goal seems to be to finishing setting up the ‘Mega City Policing’ project of 2022.

In December 2022, the Union Home Ministry sanctioned funds to the police to procure 750 vehicle tracking devices, 2,900 surveillance cameras and 7 drone units for this project. Envisaged under the Modernization of State Police Forces (MPF) scheme, it seeks to establish:

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

However, this project was formulated in the absence of a data protection law in India. Now that the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023 has been passed by the government, it is worth considering its impact on such projects that have failed to work in a consent mechanism for residents. Most importantly, the data protection law talks about a specific purpose for the data processing and highlights the right to erasure of data from any system. The law states that if a person withdraws their consent for the processing of their data OR if the purpose of the processing has been served, the data must be disposed by the system. How will the Wi-Fi dashboard or even the ANPR system that were designed prior to the framing of this law now function in the absence of these required provisions?

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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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