Mohammed Khadeer, a 35-year-old daily wage laborer, died in a hospital in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad on February 16, days after being arrested. During his hospital stay, he recorded a video in which he accused the police of extreme brutality. Khadeer had been arrested over an alleged chain-snatching case caught on a CCTV camera, and was released five days later. According to business portal Moneycontrol, the police admitted that unclear CCTV footage may have led to Khadeer being misidentified as a suspect.
Facial recognition using CCTV footage is often touted as a solution to counter crime. According to a 2022 data report by U.K.-based technology research firm Comparitech, a handful of Indian cities are among the most surveilled cities globally. But these cities also have some of the highest crime rates. Hyderabad, for instance, is the third most-surveilled city in the world, according to Comparitech, with 41.8 cameras per 1,000 people. But its crime index — an estimation of the overall level of crime in a given city or country — stands at 42.9, according to Numbeo, an online database that specializes in cost of living. Internationally, cities like Zurich and Munich fare well on the scale, with their crime indices as low as 19.1 and 18.8, respectively.
The lack of regulation around the use and the storage of data collected through CCTVs poses a serious threat to citizens’ privacy, according to experts, especially when facial recognition is used in conjunction with these systems. “This trend is something we witnessed across the board in our study, demonstrating that more CCTV cameras don’t necessarily mean lower crime rates,” Rebecca Moody, head of data research at Comparitech, told Rest of World.
Crime rates are increasing at an alarming rate in India. In 2021, according to the latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there was a 15.3% increase in crimes against women compared to the previous year. In India’s capital, New Delhi, crimes against women surged by more than 40% in the same period. All this while, the city had a network of 1,446.03 surveillance cameras per square mile — 26.7 cameras per 1,000 people.
Data rights experts and activists have raised concerns over the alarming rise of video surveillance in India, but Delhi’s government has been celebrating it. “Feel proud to say that Delhi beats cities like Shanghai, NY n London with most CCTV cameras per sq mile,” Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, had tweeted in August 2021, sharing a related Forbes India article.
“The Delhi government is trying to do a cosmetic fix where they think that crimes against women are only happening in public areas and it can be fixed through CCTV,” Anushka Jain, policy counsel at Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), a digital rights advocacy group, told Rest of World. “Political messaging is such that people believe that CCTVs will lead to an increase in security.” Rest of World reached out to the Delhi government but didn’t get a response.
For every 1,000 people, Indore — the most surveilled city in India — has 62.52 cameras. Indore stands second to Chinese cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Chongqing, which have 372.8 cameras per 1,000 persons. Yet, during the first five months of 2022, crimes such as rape and house-breaking rose by 14% in Indore. The city’s crime index is at 48.37, just over Kozhikode’s 45.3, but the latter has only 0.05 CCTV cameras per 1,000 people.
“The cameras are also watching, that gaze is also on us,” Delhi-based theater artist, Mallika Taneja, told Rest of World during a midnight walk in the city on January 22. As part of an initiative called “Women Walk at Midnight,” Taneja has been organizing all-women midnight strolls to reclaim the streets in different Indian cities for over five years.
In 2012, there was widespread outrage in Delhi following the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman, known by the pseudonym Nirbhaya or “the fearless one.” The Indian government set up the Nirbhaya Fund to invest in measures to ensure the safety of women in the country. Many projects funded through this initiative involved installation of CCTV cameras, according to IndiaSpend.
Swati Maliwal, the chair of the Delhi Commission for Women, told Rest of World that CCTV cameras help in investigating crime. “We handle more than 500 complaints in a day and we have to issue summons to the police for each case,” Maliwal said. “From our interactions with them, we have understood that CCTV cameras speed up the investigation. Once crime happens, CCTV footage helps in creating evidence and that creates a pressure.” The Delhi police has claimed they solved more than 100 cases with the help of CCTV cameras in 2021.
Yashovardhan Azad, a retired police officer who had served as special director of the intelligence bureau, told Rest of World that tracking numbers and using facial recognition are standard processes. “This is … for public order,” he said. “If there is a crime in any public area, then the police can ask for the CCTV footage and that satisfies the requirement.”
In the absence of a data protection law in India, “there are no procedural safeguards” against the way CCTV data is stored, used or shared, Jain of IFF said. “We cannot check what is happening with the data,” she told Rest of World. “What we need basically is regulation regarding the deployment of CCTVs, standard operating procedures for the authority that is deploying it, and a data protection law to regulate how the personal data is collected.”
Facial recognition can also be weaponized against vulnerable groups, including Muslims like Khadeer, research by independent think tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy shows. “The use of [facial recognition] by the police is likely to disproportionately affect Muslims because of the over-policing of some areas with significant Muslim populations, combined with police biases,” the report reads.
In 2020, the Delhi police used facial recognition to investigate the North East Delhi riots, which had claimed the lives of 53 people — 40 of whom were Muslim. In its annual report that year, the police mentioned the use of “extensive technology” while making arrests after the riots. Of the nearly 1,750 people arrested, more than half were Muslim.