Facial recognition used in India to enforce COVID policy

HYDERABAD, India (AP) — After a pair of Islamist bombings hit the south-central city of Hyderabad in 2013, officials rushed to install 5,000 CCTV cameras to beef up security. There are now nearly 700,000 in and around the metropolis.

The most striking symbol of the city’s rise as a surveillance hotspot is the gleaming new Command and Control Center in the posh Banjara Hills neighborhood. The 20-story tower replaces a campus where swarms of officers already had access to 24-hour real-time data from CCTV and cell phone towers that geolocate reported crimes. The technology activates any available camera in the area, brings up a database of criminals’ mugshots and can pair the images with facial recognition software to scan CCTV footage for known criminals in the vicinity.

The Associated Press was given rare access to the operation earlier this year as part of an investigation into the proliferation of AI tools used by law enforcement agencies around the world.

Police Commissioner CV Anand said the new command centre, which opened in August, encourages the use of technologies in all government departments, not just the police. It cost $75 million, according to Mahender Reddy, director general of the Telangana State Police.

Facial recognition and AI have exploded in India in recent years, becoming key law enforcement tools for monitoring large gatherings.

Police don’t just use technology to solve murders or catch armed robbers. Hyderabad was among the first local police force in India to use a mobile application to hand out fines and take pictures of people flaunting mask warrants. Officers can also use facial recognition software to scan images against a criminal database. Police officers have access to an app, called TSCOP, on their smartphones and tablets that includes facial recognition scanning capabilities. The app also connects nearly every police officer in the city to a variety of government and emergency services.

Anand said photos of traffic offenders and mask-mandated offenders are kept only long enough to be sure they aren’t needed in court, and are then deleted. He expressed surprise that any law-abiding citizen would object.

“If we need to control crime, we have to have surveillance,” he said.

But doubts remain about its accuracy and a lawsuit has been filed to challenge its legality. In January, an official in Hyderabad scanned the face of a female journalist to show how the facial recognition app worked. Within seconds, she returned five potential matches to criminals in the state database. Three were men.

Hyderabad has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on patrol vehicles, CCTV, facial recognition and geolocation applications, and several hundred facial recognition cameras, among other technologies, Anand said. The investment has helped the state attract more private and foreign investment, he said, including Apple’s development center, which opened in 2016; and a major Microsoft data center announced in March.

“When these companies decide to invest in a city, they look at the law and order situation first,” Anand said.

He credited the technology for a rapid decrease in crime. Jewel heists, for example, dropped from 1,033 incidents a year to fewer than 50 a year after the implementation of cameras and other technologies, she said.

Hyderabad’s trajectory is in line with that of the nation. The country’s National Crime Records Bureau is looking to build what could be one of the largest facial recognition systems in the world.

Building steadily on previous government efforts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have seized on the rise of surveillance technology since they came to power in 2014. His flagship Digital India campaign aims to overhaul the country’s digital infrastructure to govern using information technology.

The government has promoted intelligent policing through drones, AI-enabled CCTV and facial recognition. It’s a project that has garnered support across the political spectrum and penetrated states across India, said Apar Gupta, executive director of the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation.

“There’s also a lot of social and civic support for it — people don’t always fully understand,” Gupta said. “They see the technology and think this is the answer.”

Jain is a former video journalist for AP. You contact the AP Global Investigative Team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/

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