Why Hyderabad became India’s surveillance capital

What started as security concerns led to some ‘eager policing’, and ultimately, a police city that scoffs at citizens’ privacy.
Two CCTV cameras mounted on top of a Telangana police car
Two CCTV cameras mounted on top of a Telangana police car
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This story is a part of our series on policing and excesses in Hyderabad. Read all stories in the series here.

The Hyderabad Police has a dubious distinction that it is proud of — it is the 12th most surveilled city in the world on the basis of CCTV cameras installed. In July 2020, the Telangana DGP Mahendar Reddy announced the ranking saying that the city had 29.99 cameras per 1,000 people, a number that has only gone up since to 36.52 cameras per 1,000 people in 2021. According to the Bureau of Police Research and Government under the MHA, as of January 1, 2020, Telangana had 61% of all police CCTV cameras in India. Further, the city’s police force is famous for using facial recognition for several purposes, dubious cordon and search operations, profiling of ‘dark, funky people’ for drugs, clearly illegal phone searching activities, and the deceptively named ‘Operation Chabutra’. If you’re living in Hyderabad, Big Brother is definitely watching you, whether you’re discussing where to score some ganja or simply going about your life trying to make a living.

Why is Hyderabad turning into a city that activists are terming a ‘police state’? And why should you — a person who has ‘nothing to hide’ — care about this?

360 degree surveillance

It’s not just that dissent has been curbed significantly in the state with police intervention. Telangana’s Smart Governance Programme, known as Samagram, aims to integrate several datasets to give the state government a comprehensive picture of every resident — when they change jobs, all the relationships in their life, birth and death details, when they get married, employment status and more. It does this without the use of Aadhaar, by integrating such databases. To reiterate — this is not to track criminals alone — but to get a comprehensive profile of every citizen.

There isn’t much on Telangana’s official websites and publications about this programme. In fact, it’s likely you will find no trace of it. In a now-deleted article on Telangana Today (considered to be a mouthpiece of the ruling TRS government), the then Police Commissioner Mahendar Reddy had said that this project, formerly known as the Integrated People Information Hub, would use data mined from police records as well as “phone/water/electricity connections, tax payments, passports, voter IDs, RTA license and registration data, e-challans and even terrorist records”. This information is later combined with identifiers and contact numbers to create a comprehensive profile. One of the only official government documents that could be found was a presentation presumably made by the state’s IT department to the World Bank.

To sum up, here’s what Telangana’s IT Secretary said in 2019 on how a person’s digital footprint is used: “We have created a best algorithm through which this machine learning capabilities has become so robust that today we have reached a level of almost 96-97% accuracy. So if you tell me one person's name I can give his entire digital footprint at about 96% accuracy to them... this tool throws up the results in a matter of seconds and the tool also is very useful in doing what is called family tree analysis or relationship analysis.”

In present day, the Hyderabad police has constantly termed itself to be people-friendly, likening itself to the New York City Police Department (NYPD). The upcoming Command and Control Centre in Hyderabad was also initially inspired by the 1 Police Plaza of the NYPD in Manhattan.

Policing and governance are intertwined, and for this, Telangana has tied up with the European nation of Estonia to look at implementing its X Road Platform in Telangana with appropriate Indian changes. X Road allows private and public data to be shared securely between departments, similar to the Samagram system. However, while data protection in Estonia is governed by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules, India does not have a personal data protection law as yet.

Though Samagram was built after Telangana was formed in 2014 and when the TRS came to power, Hyderabad’s fixation with policing its citizens started much earlier, according to Srinivas Kodali, who works with the Free Software Movement of India, and has been tracking the developments with regard to policing.

How did Hyderabad get here

It started with the terror attacks in Hyderabad, when it was part of undivided Andhra Pradesh, and in other parts of India in the mid to late 2000s, according to Srinivas. He’s referring to the August 2007 blasts in Lumbini Amusement Park and Gokul Chat Bhandar that killed at least 42 people, and to the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, where 12 coordinated shootings killed at least 145 people. CCTV use in Hyderabad went up after the 2007 blasts in the city, Srinivas says, and a law was then passed in 2013 to amend the Public Safety Act that required all establishments with a gathering of more than 100 people to install CCTV cameras and turn over the footage to an Inspector as required.

“A lot of the early experimentation also happened in Hyderabad because our police were eager,” Srinivas says.

A surveillance state?

What started with CCTV cameras for public safety is now bordering on Hyderabad becoming a surveillance state. Facial recognition has become a common fixture, and has been stated to have been used for a number of things: tracking missing persons, keeping track of offenders, people believed to be suspects, authenticating pension data under MeeSeva, RTA services, e-voting experiments, at the airport, as well as the state commission for higher education. It has also been proposed to be introduced for the Public Distribution System to receive ration. This despite the fact that relying on facial recognition alone has been shown to be unreliable.

There have been several other activities that the Hyderabad police has carried out under the garb of “people friendly policing” — stopping people and checking WhatsApp chats for ‘drugs’, profiling people they believe are junkies, as well as randomly halting and taking people’s fingerprints, photographs and Aadhaar numbers and feeding them into a database, the Central Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS). The last one, named Operation Chabutra, has been a fixture of the police since 2015 — and has since only grown in size. It’s meant to, in their words, deter youth from roaming around at night — and whether or not this is legal is questionable at best, as the data that is collected is matched against existing records in the system for pending warrants or criminal records.

The police’s crown jewel, however, are cordon and search operations, where areas are illegally cordoned off and searched. The police claim its purpose is to instill confidence in local communities, but is mainly carried out in areas where people from low income groups or minority communities reside in fear and distrust among the people who are targeted. An area is picked, and then 100-150 members of the police force then go into a colony and check vehicle documents, identity proofs, and whether they have liquor or ganja.

Cordon and searches has been termed a human rights violation by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, but has been prevalent at least since 2013 in the city, starting with the Cyberabad commissionerate.

Cordon and search operations, Srinivas says, go back to when anti-Naxal operations were carried out in united Andhra Pradesh.

The insurgency in Andhra Pradesh began in the 1960s, around the same time that the Naxalbari uprising took place, sparking a similar peasant uprising in Srikakulam. In the 1970s, it spread to districts like erstwhile Karimnagar and Adilabad in Telangana region as well. With the formation of the People's War Group (PWG), the movement gained further traction. Naxals were active even in the early 2000s, but now their activities are relegated to the forests between Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Chattisgarh. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Hindu reported that a strategy of the police was to rely heavily on cordon and search operations. It was found to be futile then.

Hyderabad MP and AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi tells TNM that in principle, the police can stop people and check vehicle documents, search etc. “But they cannot go into a locality, knock on people’s doors and then ask for Aadhaar details, take photographs, fingerprints, check phones, etc. All this is part of personal privacy. Under what law is this being done? It has to be specified,” he said.

He says that Operation Chabutra has been stopped, but with regard to data collection by the police, he questions what is the guarantee that it will not be misused. “We don’t know how safe police data is.”

Why should you care?

While people may say that they have nothing to hide and hence do not mind being checked or questioned, it is a narrow and perhaps even convenient argument offered by individuals and institutions who wish to violate privacy, says Vidushi Marda, a senior programme officer at human rights organisation Article 19 who investigates the consequences of integrating artificial intelligence systems in societies. At the same time, there is a tendency to make an incorrect and inappropriate moral judgment about privacy being the same as secrecy, she adds.

“Privacy empowers us to decide what information we disclose to others, when and how. It is important for individual autonomy, it forms the basis of our ability to develop our voice, to build relationships with others. To reduce it to a right that one should only care about if one has something to hide, is an active and deliberate attempt to dilute it to its most narrow form,” she says.

She adds that such policing not only blatantly violates fundamental rights, but “also normalises and entrenches the practice of the police acting with impunity, making up practices and rules as they go instead of grounding them in law and due process.”

She stresses that it is necessary to have a conversation about how the Constitution “merely affirms rights that individuals have, as a limitation on state power”, and that the rights of citizens are not provided for by the state.

Profiling and policing in low income areas represents the tendency to embed arbitrariness into policing practices, she says, adding that it is a slippery slope.

It is important to note that India does not have a data protection law, and the reworked report is likely to be presented in the ongoing session of Parliament. It will not, however, solve the fundamental issues of discriminatory policing and government overreach, says Vidushi.

“In the absence of a data protection law, the government is able to act carte blanche on what data is collected, shared, stored and analysed in the absence of any accountability mechanisms. ‘New’ or ‘fancy’ technologies seem to enjoy an unjustified exceptionalism to well-established constitutional principles, which only endanger our rights more,” she says.


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