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Thursday, December 2 2021


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I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do.

That’s what Frida Kahlo said… or did she? The lines were actually penned back in 2008 by an angst-ridden Canadian teenager—but has since earned internet immortality as a Kahlo quote, which has been misattributed by countless memes and even the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Buzzfeed News has more on this amusing story.

 

Stuff to check out: On the latest episode of the splainer podcast ‘Press Decode’, the splainer team looks at variants and metaverse—strange news things that are changing our world. Be sure to head over to the IVM website, Spotify or Apple Podcasts to listen to it.

 

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Big Story

Hyderabad: Rise of the ‘total surveillance’ smart city

The TLDR: Earlier this month, Amnesty International released a brief report calling out the dangerous use of facial recognition technology in the city. But Hyderabad is far from the only Orwellian nightmare in India—but part of a sweeping nationwide trend, which is closely linked to the Smart Cities Mission.

 

Editor’s note: Our big story today is free to read. So if you liked it be sure to share the link widely! It helps splainer find new subscribers:)

 

Hyderabad: ‘total surveillance’ city

The origin story: Back in 2014—when Telangana was created—Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao promised to install 10,000 CCTV cameras in Hyderabad—to “make it a world-class city with law and order as top priority.” Since then, the city has moved toward creating that “world-class surveillance system” with new technologies and databases. 

 

A very good example: is the Samagram system which relies on data collected from a 2014 household survey to create a “360 degree citizen tracking system.” All law enforcement needs is a phone number:

 

“In a nondescript two-storey office in a posh Hyderabad neighbourhood, a senior government official typed the names of an iconic city-based sports person and their father. In seconds, 12 records linked to their name popped up on a giant wall-mounted screen—address, phone number, high school and higher secondary exam details, passport and driving licence information and vehicle ownership details.”

 

And each individual’s record is linked to “five kinds of relationships: parents, children, siblings, spouses, and other residual relationships like people living in the same address, people using the same phone number or email id.” So you can keep drilling down into a person’s network.

 

Point to note: When the Supreme Court restricted the use of Aadhaar in 2018, Telangana offered the Samagram system to the union government—so it could build a similar national database called Social Registry.

 

The Amnesty report: focuses on the use of facial recognition technology. 

 

  • Telangana has the highest number of facial recognition technology projects in India. 
  • There are over 3.7 lakh CCTV cameras in Hyderabad—and an estimated 8.3 lakh cameras in the state. 
  • During the pandemic, authorities redeployed the CCTV system, using AI to track and fine people without face masks.
  • Apart from CCTV, the city police are now armed with digital cameras—and randomly force people on the street to remove their masks to take their photos. There have also been instances of forcing people to give fingerprint reads.
  • Amnesty notes, as per Indian law, the police is not allowed to take photographs of a person unless they have been arrested or convicted of a crime. 

 

The Command and Control Centre: Amnesty also flagged the construction of an state-of-the-art police headquarters in Banjara Hills—“intended to connect the state’s vast facial recognition-capable CCTV infrastructure in real time.” According to Mint:

 

“The 18 and 24-storeyed twin tower spread across seven acres and worth Rs 300 crore ($39 million) is going to support the vast network of CCTV cameras dotted across the city and state. It will have a ‘giant video wall’ which will show live footage from the cameras on-ground. One could say that it will house one of the largest surveillance systems in the country.”

 

It is also a vast AI-driven machine, crunching data from multiple sources to allow law enforcement to make real time decisions. 

 

The big worry: for human rights and digital activists is that the technology will be used to exercise total control over citizens—and, of course, crush dissent:

 

“Facial recognition technology can track who you are, where you go, what you do, and who you know. It threatens human rights including the right to privacy, and puts some of the most vulnerable in society at risk. The construction of the CCC has chilling consequences for the right to freedom of expression and assembly.”

 

The police’s defence: is that such tools are necessary to ensure citizen safety:

 

“Maximum crime detection is through CCTVs and they act as strength to the investigation… It is a known fact that the country does not have adequate policemen for the population and it is not possible for police to be present everywhere and that is when CCTV cameras come in handy. For us, one CCTV is equal to 100 policemen.”

 

And the crime rate in the state has dropped precisely due to the smart use of technology. Because, as one happy Hyderabad resident puts it, “deterrence works.”

 

A country of surveillance cities

Numbers to note: Back in January, Surfshark put out a report on the cities with the highest number of CCTV cameras. Chennai came in at #1 with 657.28 cameras per sq km and 25.5 per 1,000 people. At the #2 spot: Hyderabad with 480 per sq km and 30 for every 1,000 people. In comparison, Harbin came in at #3—though China has six cities in the top ten. 

 

Point to note: Delhi came in at #8 according to Surfshark data, but a more recent report —which looked at cameras per square mile—issued by Comparitech put it at #1. We are not sure why there is such a disparity between the two rankings. What remains true is that Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal tweeted out the achievement, saying: “Feel proud to say that Delhi beats cities like Shanghai, NY n London with most CCTV cameras per sq mile.”

 

The smart city mission: The video surveillance market in India is expanding fast—fueled by the big government project called Smart Cities Mission. It was launched in 2015—and initially targeted 100 cities. The aim: “to drive economic growth and improve the quality of life of people by enabling local area development and harnessing technology, especially technology that leads to smart outcomes.” 

 

This is a laudable and necessary goal—and cities around the world are on the same track to tackle their biggest challenges, including population growth and climate change. But there are two core problems with its execution in India.

 

Problem #1: A lot of the ‘smart’ technology has been focused on increasing surveillance—and setting up integrated command and control centres (or ICCCs) similar to Hyderabad. Smaller cities like Surat, Visakhapatnam, Nagpur, Jaipur and Agra too have been expanding CCTV coverage—which is often the top priority for a Smart City project. As one digital expert puts it: “There is a trend to attempt to redefine citizenship through the construct of the smart city. This equates smartness and citizenship with surveillance and control.”

 

Problem #2: Data collection is at the core of the ‘smart city’ model. It relies on three technological systems

 

  • First, it requires the embedding of monitoring and data gathering devices into roads, buildings, streets, homes, schools and workplaces. 
  • Next, this vast trove of data is collected and delivered to cloud computing systems.
  • That data is analysed by AI-driven systems to form policy or even take real-time action.

 

But without proper data protection and privacy laws, the same smart city can turn into a Big Brother nightmare. The government just put out a draft of the Personal Data Protection Bill (explained here)—which allows it to exempt itself from any or all provisions of the law in the name of “sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign countries and public order.” The result: The new law will give government agencies limitless power to use unimaginable amounts of personal data—all collected in the name of building a smart city—however it wishes.


The bottomline: When it comes to privacy, we are a bit like happy lobsters in a boiling pot. The more ever-present the surveillance, the more 'normal' it seems. And the truth is that many of us welcome the new normal because it makes us feel ‘safe’, as one tech policy expert says: “In India, it appeals to the tendencies of people who expect the authorities to take care of everything. It makes us blindly accept this surveillance tech without any guardrails.”

 

Reading list

This Indian Express op-ed—written by the authors of the Amnesty report—lays out the case against facial recognition technology. The Print has the police’s defence of surveillance tech. This older 2020 Mint story has the best reporting on Hyderabad. Science Focus does a good job of laying out how smart cities work—and why data protection is key. Yale Environment360 looks at the challenges faced by smart cities around the world. Our explainer lays out the provisions of the Personal Data Protection Bill—and its flaws. You can also check out the Surfshark and Comparitech reports on the most surveilled cities.

 

 
Headlines that matter

An Australian #MeToo shocker

Sexual harassment is rampant in the country’s parliament—where one in three workers have experienced some form of such abuse. No, it’s not just the staffers. Yes, 51% of them faced either “bullying, sexual harassment, or actual or attempted sexual assault”—but that’s lower than the 63% of female members of parliament who reported the same. According to an unnamed MP:  

 

"Aspiring male politicians who thought nothing of, in one case, picking you up, kissing you on the lips, lifting you up, touching you, pats on the bottom, comments about appearance, you know, the usual. The point I make with that ... [w]as the culture allowed it, encouraged it."


The findings are part of a new report which you can check out here. (BBC News)


Twitter steps up for consent

The platform announced that users are no longer allowed to share private photos or videos of a person without their permission. To remove such content, either the person or their representative will have to file a report. Exceptions to the rule: images from large public gatherings like sporting events or protests, or a public figure—or “when a tweet’s text and media add value to the public discourse or are in the public interest.” (Wall Street Journal)

 

A message from KinderPass

Got kids? Got to do this!

Ninety percent of your baby’s brain develops before the age of five but often, as parents, we don’t know “what’s normal”. The pandemic has disrupted normal schedules—no outdoor play, no daycare or preschool and passive screen time is leading to language delays and behavioural issues. Early detection and early intervention is critical—you don’t want to wait and watch or rely on unqualified opinions.

 

Here is a simple 5-minute check to track your little one's development—for all kids between the ages of 0-4. It’s available in English and Hindi. The free development check is supported by Indian Academy of Pediatrics (Twin cities, Telangana). The check will surface any red flags that you can monitor or discuss with an expert.

 

If you need any more information or have more questions, you can also book a free consultation with the KinderPass team. 

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In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • ‘#SorryThankYouTataByeBye to patriarchy’

 

Reading Habit

  • A list of new releases 
  • Quick fixes, aka a few varied recommendations
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