Telangana custodial death victim was wrongly picked up through 'CCTV identification'

Activists decry the use of invasive surveillance tech, say usage is growing across many cities in India especially in Hyderabad without transparency and accountability.
A collage of Khadeer and police in the background
A collage of Khadeer and police in the background
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The death of 36-year-old daily wage labourer Khadeer Khan due to alleged custodial torture by the police in Telangana’s Medak district has raised questions about the reliability of the Telangana police’s much touted CCTV and face recognition systems. It has now emerged that Khadeer was wrongly identified and nabbed from Hyderabad on January 29 as there were similarities between him and a chain snatcher seen in CCTV footage in Medak. He was released five days later on February 3 and died while undergoing treatment in Hyderabad at the state-run Gandhi Hospital. In a video statement taken before his death, Khadeer had graphically described the torture inflicted on him. 

Activists believe that Khadeer paid with his life because of a tech failure after he was wrongly identified because of his similarities with the suspect. While it isn’t fully clear whether facial recognition technology (FRT) was used in Khadeer’s case, it is confirmed that he was identified using CCTV footage. 

While speaking to TNM, Medak Deputy Superintendent of Police K Saidulu had said that Khadeer was picked as there were similarities between him and the man seen in the CCTV footage snatching the chain. “When it was ruled out that Khadeer was not the one who had committed the crime, he was released. He was also produced in front of an Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO) before his release on February 3. Everything was done as per procedure,” the DSP had said.    

According to sources, the Telangana police has a digital database of nearly 40,000 persons who have been investigated in the past for a wide range of crimes in Hyderabad. The numbers will be much higher when the entire state is taken into account. According to the Medak police, Khadeer was involved in two property offences in 2018 and 2019. Property offences include offences like robbery, chain snatching, dacoity, extortion etc wherein a private property is involved. 

All police stations in Hyderabad use a face recognition app. Beat constables and police patrol vehicles are also provided with tabs that have the face recognition app installed in them. Speaking to TNM, a sub inspector, on the condition of anonymity said, “Everytime someone is remanded for an offence, their fingerprints are taken and photos from three sides are collected and entered into the database. Whenever CCTV footage or a photo is obtained, the cops run it through the app. The app compares the two images or videos and says what percentage of a match it is.”

Such face recognition apps use biometric measurements for facial feature tracking on both images and videos. Some apps can also ascertain the emotional state of a suspect as well as establish their ethnicity. It can also track skin, hair, facial features and hairstyle. In Khadeer’s case, his wife Farzana Khan while speaking to TNM earlier had said that she was told by the police that the hair on the back side of the head of the accused was similar to that of Khadeer. She was also told that the accused had covered his face with a handkerchief and hence the police did not get a clear image in the CCTV footage. 

The facial recognition app shows the similarity between two images. “Anything above 70% is considered as a good match. This isn’t a fool-proof way to zero down on the accused, because two individuals may have several similar features. Several other factors are put together to decide if the person is the one behind the crime,” added the sub inspector.

According to the police, Khadeer’s build was also similar to that of the accused. If indeed the hi-tech apps were used, it raises questions about their reliability but also the competence of the investigators using this technology. 

While Khadeer’s wife Farzana says she wasn’t shown the CCTV footage despite several requests, IPS officers TNM spoke to said even if Khadeer was the one behind the crime, his illegal detention and assault was unjustified.

TNM spoke to several senior police officers in the state to understand how FRT is used as a tool. “What is wrong in using Facial Recognition Technology? We have been provided the technology to make use of it. In several cases, it has helped find the culprit,” said a senior IPS officer, on the condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, the Internet Freedom Foundation, an organisation that defends online freedom in India, has put out a statement reiterating their stand that the use of technologies such as CCTV cameras and facial recognition is error prone. “The use of technologies such as CCTV cameras and facial recognition is error prone, as can be seen in the present case as well as similar cases around the world. However, the use of these technologies has expanded at a significant pace without transparency and accountability, across many cities in India,  and especially in Hyderabad. IFF is concerned that with the continued use of such technologies, similar cases of misidentification will continue to occur, the irreversible consequences of which will have to be borne by innocent citizens of India like Mr Khan and his family,” read the statement.        

DGP unhappy

Telangana Director General of Police, Anjani Kumar, on February 20, Monday, in the monthly crime review rapped the Rohini Priyadarshini, the Medak SP for the incident. For nearly 45 minutes the DGP spoke to the officers about the Medak SP. The DGP felt that it was a lack of communication between the SP and her subordinates that led to the incident. He asked the senior officers to take ownership of the incident at the leadership level and not to pass the buck.

In the daily review too, on Tuesday, the Medak incident again found a mention. The DGP mentioned how the Telangana High Court has taken suo moto cognizance of the incident and asked for a report to be submitted. He was of the opinion that the incident has brought ill will to the department.

READ: Wife of Telangana man who died after alleged police torture recounts horror to TNM

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