Indian state’s drone surveillance, facial recognition program worries privacy advocates

lucknow safe city project drone surveillance

India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, wants to make its capital city, Lucknow, safer for women. And it wants to do so by establishing a broad-ranging surveillance setup that uses tools such as drones, facial recognition-enabled CCTV cameras, and AI-based video analytics. However, in the absence of robust data privacy laws, critics fear the program will infringe upon the privacy of citizens in a state infamous for communal polarization.

Multimillion Lucknow Safe City Project

The Lucknow Safe City Project is being launched at an approximate cost of $26.2 million. When the program was announced in October 2020, Uttar Pradesh Governor Anandiben Patel highlighted the need for proactive crime prevention, saying:

There are people with criminal and perverted mindset, who derive pleasure by committing crime. Girls are harassed while going to schools. It is because of these people that women do not feel safe in the family. Police must identify these people, and act before they could commit crime.

Now, more details are emerging that reveal the government may be looking to set up an overarching surveillance architecture in the garb of women’s safety.

According to tech policy portal Medianama, the state government will be monitoring 40 different “suspicious activities” through hundreds of AI-based CCTV cameras sprinkled around the city. Scenarios listed by the authorities include identifying “group of smokers” at public places and areas with a heavy footfall of women and detecting the behavior of men at “shadow areas” such as outside ladies’ toilets and women-centric garment shops.

Further, the government wants to deploy drones to patrol over terraces and rooftops. More specifically, the drones will be used:

  • To increase the command area of surveillance by including higher grounds, terraces, rooftops.
  • To act as active deterrent to unscrupulous elements during challenging law and order situations like rallies, rasta roko (protest by blocking roads), and similar mob/crowd-led activities.

Which then begs the question: If the project is being brought about to combat crime against women, why does the government want to use it as a way to quash dissent in the world’s largest democracy?

It’s also important to note here that the police departments of various state governments have recently been granted conditional exemptions from India’s UAS Rules 2021. This means Lucknow police would not be required to adhere to procedural safeguards in the drone policy.

In the meantime, the data gathered through CCTV cameras and drones will be fed to a “crime intelligence platform” that would identify relationships between “entities” by leveraging different databases available with the government.

Drone surveillance “violates fundamental right to privacy”

These provisions of the Lucknow Safe City Project worry Rishi Anand, a partner at law firm DSK Legal. Pointing out that, unlike developed economies like the European Union, India has no comprehensive legislation regulating artificial intelligence and data protection, Anand tells Medianama:

Challenges lie ahead not only with respect to the biased data that may be fed into the algorithms and replication of the underlying problems of the criminal justice system (such as targeting of specific religious communities, ethnic origins, etc.) but also with the spill over effect of such technology on privacy and civil liberties of the individuals.

Asaduddin Owaisi, an Indian politician and four-time member of Parliament, concurs with Anand’s view. He sees this all-around surveillance as a violation of the fundamental right to privacy. Explaining that he has already written to the directorate general of civil aviation to put a ban on the use of drones for policing and surveillance, Owaisi takes to Twitter to say:

Cops have used drones to track lawful movement of citizens and even spy on people when they’re on their own roofs. Such drone use violates fundamental right to privacy protected by the constitution and recognized by the Supreme Court. I had also demanded that there must be prior informed consent when drones take pictures of a person. Images or audio taken by drones should be used only for purposes that they were collected for and only for a specified time limit. Government must not permit such large-scale surveillance.

Others on social media also agree.

“Beginning of a surveillance state,” writes one Reddit user, while another user notes:

This should be nipped in the bud, probably with the help of the Supreme Court. I also heard the government is planning facial recognition on trains. That would be the end of privacy and the end of the justice system as we know it.

The Lucknow Safe City Project is still in a nascent stage, inviting bids from tech vendors for its various provisions. Meanwhile, seven other cities have been earmarked by the central government for Safe City Projects, and it remains to be seen whether their framework would follow in Lucknow’s footsteps or if they would choose to respect people’s right to privacy.

Read more: AI-powered facial recognition drones track criminals in UAE

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