Over the last few years, the Hyderabad Police has carried out cordon-off searches post midnight in low income neighbourhoods of the city. These searches are typically carried out by cordoning off an entire area using around 150-200 police personnel.
The aim of these searches, according to police, is to nab criminals. In reality, it is a large-scale information collection exercise where identity documents and registration documents of vehicles are demanded from the homes of residents.
These warrant-less illegal exercises gained traction during Ivanka Trump’s visit to Hyderabad in November 2017, and have since become a routine nuisance in the wee hours of the night.
Cordon-off search is a technique used by various militaries to search for enemy combatants in a structured fashion. In India, the army uses it for search operations in the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir.
Operation Chabutra: Targeting Teenage Minorities
The targeted areas include low income neighbourhoods, inhabited mostly by Muslims or north Indian migrants. There are routine flag marches with rapid action force carrying heavy weapons in peaceful neighborhoods. There is no evidence of these exercises being carried out in rich societies or apartment complexes in the city.
Cordon-off search is not the only invasive technique in Hyderabad Police's arsenal. Another military-inspired exercise is code-named “Operation Chabutra”.
Under Operation Chabutra, any young male between 15 and 25 years roaming in the city is detained for the entire night with a strict warning to stop doing the same.
Every detained individual’s fingerprints are compared with the database of biometrics of all known criminals.
All of this appears to be happening without the sanction of any law and no FIRs are registered. Most of the young people subjected to these invasive techniques remain silent. These actions of Hyderabad Police go against the fundamental right to privacy and right to movement.
The police even invites local media to cover them or they tweet out photos informing everyone that they are doing this for the safety of residents.
Are These Searches Legal?
In addition to a pliant media and lack of civil society voice, these techniques are being hailed by the unaffected locals.
A PIL on the issue was rejected on the ground that the petitioner did not exhaust his options by reaching out to the police directly and had no locus standi. The police, in turn, has used the dismissal to assert that these exercises are legal.
The police's scatter-gun approach to finding criminals has led to extensive profiling of every citizen.
The Hyderabad Police maintains a 360-degree profile of every resident in the city with a database called Integrated Information Hub (IIH). The idea emerged from UIDAI when it shared our Aadhaar data and helped setup State Resident Data Hubs (SDRH) in various states.
During the Aadhaar hearings, the Supreme court was informed that the SRDH databases have been shut down post the enactment of the Aadhaar Act in 2016, but there is evidence that this is not true.
Power of Access to Biometrics & Databases
The SRDH databases have been used by political parties to profile voters in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, which raises questions on privacy and legality of the police database. It is important to note that profiling is a form of surveillance and Hyderabad Police is carrying out mass surveillance.
Armed with these databases and the power of biometrics, the Hyderabad Police is on a witch-hunt. Operation Chabutra has evolved over the years and is no more limited to midnight operations.
They are stopping public on the road, demanding their fingerprints to identify if they have a criminal history. This is done using fingerprint scanners linked to Android tablets.
The frequency of these checks has only increased and spread across the city.
Facial Recognition As Well
In 2018, the Hyderabad Police integrated the power of facial recognition to their mobile application TS-COP, which is linked to the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS).
CCTNS links all the police stations and thus allows information sharing of criminals. The Hyderabad Police is now stopping people on the streets and taking photos of them to identity them using facial recognition.
Usually facial recognition occurs without the knowledge of an individual when feed from CCTV cameras is used to search for persons of interest. The TS-COP app allows the police to use it in areas where CCTV cameras are not available.
Recently, the police arrested a man within 24 hours after a video of him being drunk and shouting on the metro went viral.
Facial Recognition: World vs India
Worldwide instances of surveillance, privacy abuse, inaccurate results and, most importantly, disproportionate impact on minorities have surfaced repeatedly.
In May, San Francisco, at the heart of Silicon Valley’s technology revolution, became the first American city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by the police. The beat cops in Hyderabad, on the other hand, never disclose to the citizens what they are being subjected to.
Unlike a western democracy where police are required to read your rights, in India, people are told to shut up and do what they are being told. As this practice gradually gets normalised, it appears that the middle class of the city is beginning to question the police.
In what seems to be an escalation of these military strategies, Telangana Police are now carrying out these exercises outside Hyderabad.
These issues are not specific to Hyderabad anymore as the National Criminal Records Bureau is in the process of procuring national automated facial recognition system, which will be provided to all police stations using CCTNS.
I am afraid we will see a police State with these methodologies being exported from the Sardar Vallabhai Patel Police Academy in Hyderabad through knowledge sharing.
(Srinivas Kodali is a independent researcher working on data, technology and democracy. He tweets at @digitaldutta. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed in the article are that of the author’s own. The Quint does not advocate nor is responsible for them.)