The city of Bengaluru, a haven for techies, is about to embark on a video surveillance experiment that plans to introduce facial recognition technology even as activists and privacy experts warn that it could set a dangerous precedent and pave the way for profiling of citizens by the police. RTI responses from the city police led to the discovery that the surveillance system will be linked to a ‘blacklist library’, which aims to match faces from CCTV feeds with images from a police database.
RTI responses received by the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) found that the system aims to match faces and generate alerts when a ‘blacklisted’ person is detected on the footage of surveillance cameras. “The Facial Recognition System (FRS) should be able to match faces with images from its database/previous feeds, and track the past movements of these individuals. The system should generate alerts when a ‘blacklisted person’ is detected on the footage, or when someone is detected in an area where they are not permitted,” reads the RTI response from the Bengaluru police. IFF is a New Delhi based digital rights organisation that seeks to ensure Indian citizens can use the internet with the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.
The system will have the ability to capture facial images from live CCTV footage, search for matches based on facial features, and match facial images with pre-recorded video feeds obtained from CCTVs deployed in certain “critical” identified locations in the city and from video feeds obtained from private or other public organisations — which activists point out sounds very much like profiling neighbourhoods and people based on caste and class.
Though the ‘blacklist library’ is yet to be defined by the police, officials revealed that there are records of criminals maintained in each police station. “These records show those convicted in crimes and have a history of assaults or causing bodily harm. We maintain individual profiles of people in their local police stations and could share this information with the command centre,” a senior police official involved in the project said.
Police officials confirmed that the revamp of the surveillance system, under the Union government’s Safe City project, will see new cameras set up in more than 1000 locations and a command centre set up to monitor video surveillance feeds. A tender called by the Bengaluru Police last year to install CCTV cameras in the city was bagged by Honeywell Automation India Ltd – a subsidiary of the US-headquartered multinational corporation Honeywell International Inc.
Bengaluru currently has over 2 lakh CCTV cameras, 4,000 of which are under the purview of the police department. The police also have access to the cameras managed by the traffic police and those set up in private establishments and residential complexes. The city police plan to increase the number of CCTV cameras under their purview to 7,500, covering 2,744 locations in the city with Rs 261 crore allocated towards the surveillance project in the annual budget.
The number of cameras in Bengaluru is smaller in comparison to cities like Delhi, where the state government revealed in 2022 that it had set up more than 1.3 lakh CCTV cameras in two years. Further, the Delhi police have admitted in RTI responses that it considers matches that are more than 80% similar to be ‘positive results’ in their facial recognition system.
Bengaluru’s surveillance system will soon include around 100 cameras with 4K resolution that will be capable of running the facial recognition system, a feature the police believe has the potential to become a powerful investigative tool. “This system would help us track people quicker when we are trying to find missing people and when we are tracking criminals,” a senior police official involved in the surveillance project said.
Facial recognition cameras have also been introduced in public spots in Bengaluru, at the international airport and the KSR railway station. The Bengaluru airport is one of three airports in the country with the Digi Yatra facility, which uses facial recognition during check-in. The South Western Railways piloted a facial recognition project at the KSR Railway station in 2020, with a media report stating that the surveillance cameras are even able to identify people wearing masks.
Civil liberties groups say multiple studies have shown that increasing CCTV cameras has little to no effect on crimes in the surveilled area. Moreover, they warn that they are prone to misuse. “If people are selectively targeted based on a previous crime, it paves the way for pre-emptively policing people based on police records that are arbitrarily compiled,” Anushka Jain, policy counsel with the Internet Freedom Foundation, said. “During the anti-CAA protests and farmer protests, facial recognition and video surveillance was used by the police to identify those who were dissenting.”
Rohan (name changed), a 14-year-old resident of Adugodi in Bengaluru said that he has observed two new CCTV cameras come up in the lane to his house in the last month. Unlike many in the city who see CCTV cameras as an added security measure, Rohan is apprehensive of the newly installed devices peering out from walls and windows in his neighbourhood. “We are already seen as troublemakers here,” he said, “Every day, police doing their rounds, disperse our group when we play football on the streets.”
Sometimes, the police’s actions are far more serious, he said. “My friend was detained in 2019 in a phone snatching case. Since then, whenever there is an incident in our neighbourhood, he is picked up by the police,” said Rohan, “And each time we end up paying a few hundred rupees to get him out.”
In 2020, following the riots in Bengaluru’s Muslim-dominated DJ Halli and KG Halli areas, reports detailed how police broke into houses in the neighbourhood late in the night to arrest men allegedly involved in the riots. Police cited CCTV footage for the arrest of at least 350 men from the area, even as some families contested the police’s claims. Sanaa, a resident of DJ Halli, whose husband was arrested by the police, said she found CCTV video of her husband entering her apartment hours before the riots began but has been unable to use the footage in court to prove her husband’s innocence as her lawyers have told her it can only be done when the case enters the evidence stage of the trial. This could be months, or years, since the charges were filed under UAPA in the case.
However, a senior police official in the city, responding to privacy concerns raised by activist groups, only sought to reiterate the legality of the exercise. “Too much is being read into the introduction of facial recognition,” said the official. “The Criminal Procedure (Identification) Act allows the collection of fingerprints. This is done all around the world and we have rules that we don’t store data after a certain period of time or if a person is acquitted,” the official added.
Bengaluru video surveillance: What people know and don’t about CCTV cameras