In many public places in Hyderabad, there are signboards that read: ‘Big boss is watching you’. It is unclear what this implies: whether it is a warning from the state that people must abide by the law or an assurance that the citizenry is safe under the watch of the state or an ominous message that the movements of citizens are constantly being monitored.
While there have been protests in Hyderabad against surveillance and in support of the right to privacy, it was only after Amnesty International raised concerns that “extensive surveillance of Hyderabad is putting human rights at risk” that surveillance was brought to the fore.
Surveillance in Hyderabad largely follows a three-pronged approach: there is a wide web of CCTV cameras, facial recognition technology, and cordon and search operations. Amnesty, the Internet Freedom Foundation and Article 19 mapped the CCTV coverage in Kala Pathar and Kishan Bagh, neighbourhoods of the Old City, and found that as much as 53.7% of Kala Pathar and 62.7% of Kishan Bagh was covered by private and government-maintained CCTV cameras. It is pertinent to point out that Telangana’s Nenu Saitham project aims to transform the Hyderabad City Police into a Global City Police. To help achieve this aim, the public has been encouraged to install CCTV cameras and share footage when required. Outcomes of this project include preventing crime and monitoring ‘high-risk areas’.
Further, the construction of a Command and Control Centre, Amnesty International says, has the capability to support the processing of 6 lakh CCTV cameras from the tri-commissionerates. Amnesty says facial recognition technologies can bring under a cloud the right to peaceful assembly as they can act as a tool of mass surveillance and pose a risk to disadvantaged communities.
Two cases of the alleged violation of privacy by the police were reported recently. S.Q. Masood, an activist, said the police stopped him during the lockdown, instructed him to remove his mask and clicked photos of him. Similarly, during a crackdown against ganja, the Telangana Prohibition and Excise Department teams checked the phones of people to verify if the word ‘ganja’ was used in their chats. Following these incidents, Srinivas Kodali, another city-based activist, sent a legal notice to the Hyderabad City Police Commissioner seeking an immediate end to surveillance activities. These incidents underscore crucial issues: the need for a data protection law and the concept of informed consent.
Cordon and search operations have been gaining momentum in Telangana. A fact-finding team from Hyderabad which probed cordon and search operations in some areas recently underscored the vulnerability of residents. The team stated that cordon and search operations project such areas as “criminal areas”, target “lower rungs of society, and are an infringement of privacy”.
Another lesser-known facet of policing and surveillance is Operation Chabutra. Chabutra is a raised surface outside houses where people gather for social interactions. The police say they have stopped and “counseled” youths who were whiling away the hours. They have done this even when no prohibitory orders were in force. The police maintain that they are well within the provisions of the law to embark on such operations. In some cases, they say, they act on specific inputs and complaints of nuisance from locals.
While upkeep of law and order is paramount, the right to privacy and informed consent cannot be compromised; they need to be protected by a law that defines the limits of use of citizen’s data by the state. The unequal power dynamic between security agencies and the common man who has no choice but to comply cannot be ignored.