The automatically issued challans by the police, through millions of surveillance cameras, are affecting people on the street.

File photo of DGP Mahender Reddy looking at CCTV footageFile photo
news Technology Wednesday, May 26, 2021 - 13:21

The Telangana police can proudly say they are enforcing a strict lockdown with contactless policing powered by CCTVs, facial recognition, drones and apps. The police department has collected upto Rs 31 crore in fines from people for lockdown related violations in just two weeks. However, the automatically issued challans by the police through millions of surveillance cameras are affecting people on the street. In this new form of contactless policing, there is no possibility to negotiate with an automated system which doesn’t care why you are out on the street, even if you are out to get emergency medical care.

The Telangana police does not want people to come in contact with each other and it doesn’t want people to be in contact with the police department either. Unlike last year’s lockdown when people queued up at various police stations to obtain movement passes to travel to hometowns, this year, the only mode for obtaining movement passes is contactless through electronic means on their website. The e-pass website of Telangana police is available only in English and makes Aadhaar a mandatory ID to obtain the pass. Anyone who doesn’t know English, doesn’t have access to the internet or doesn’t have Aadhaar, essentially can’t obtain an e-pass. Without the pass, being out on the street gets you a hefty challan, equal to a working class person’s daily wage.

Telangana police since 2013 has been ramping up the number of CCTVs and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras across the state as part of their Integrated Traffic Management System in Hyderabad. The Traffic Police has been using it to issue vehicle challans through automated algorithms for a range of issues from overspeeding and illegal parking to driving in wrong directions and not wearing a helmet. This entire setup is celebrated by the police as contactless policing, which is cashless, with COPLESS Junctions, thus enabling transparency, accountability and being citizen friendly. 

This system is anything but citizen friendly — an automated machine that blindly trusts its algorithms and data, created to penalise people for slightest errors. Even during pre-lockdown normal circumstances, there have been reports of people using someone else’s vehicle numbers to evade challans. The ANPR is not always perfect and can misread the number plates. The algorithms sometimes penalize you for overspeeding when you may be driving under the limit. These issues even made the BJP demand challans to be waived off as part of their 2020 municipal elections promise. There are a host of issues with it, but the most important being lack of rules and law explaining how this opaque system itself operates.  

This digital form of policing has now become a burden for people who are out on the streets for medical emergencies or for essential duties. The police are penalising anyone on the street without cause, even when evidence is being produced that they are going to a hospital. The most affected by these actions are the gig economy delivery drivers, who are on the street performing essential work. The leaders of AIMIM have met the Commissioner of Hyderabad Police asking them to rethink their approach towards these challans in the last week. 

It is not just the challans being issued to people out on the street during lockdown. The Telangana police is actively using technologies like facial recognition to fine people not wearing masks. Yet another mode of contactless policing that penalises people disproportionately, while ignoring to provide residents with healthcare solutions. While they are fining people for not wearing masks, at the same time, police are also forcing people to remove masks to get their photos taken for filing petty cases against them. It's like they don’t know which directive to follow when it comes to masks. 

These information technology systems help the police have absolute control over large scale populations. They are also a disproportionate response to a healthcare problem the state mis-managed. At a time when people are without jobs and support systems, the police are penalising everyone and there is no negotiation that can take place with these automated systems. One can potentially ignore paying this fine to the cops, but there is no option when personal vehicles are being seized.

All of these techno utopian practices are creating their own problems for the common man on the street. Telangana police leadership will never accept these problems and will continue to force them on us. Telangana police is the most technology savvy police department in India. The reason for it probably lies with the IT sector which forces these surveillance technologies on police. When you pay your challan, you also pay an extra Rs 35 user charge to these private companies maintaining these IT systems. A form of public private partnership that promotes surveillance and capitalism funded entirely by the citizens.

There is a constant comparison by the Hyderabad Police Commissioner comparing Hyderabad Police with the New York Police and to London Metropolitan Police. Yet another justification to experiment with new technologies which gives no legitimacy for pushing technocratic surveillance systems in Hyderabad.

For long residents of Telangana have ignored what was happening in the state in terms of technology experimentation and excessive policing practices. The pandemic is showing us the fault lines and how these systems are harming us while giving enormous power over people to the police. It is high time to question the police department about its practices, under what authority are they using these systems and where is the oversight on its misuse?

Srinivas Kodali is a resident of Hyderabad. His research focuses on data, governance and the internet. Views expressed are the author’s own.