From mandatory face masks and temperature checks, to socially distant holiday seasons, 2020 has upended our lives in the most haunting way. It’s also meant that governments across the world could introduce intrusive surveillance technology into our daily lives in the name of public health.
In China, the government has been tracking its citizens by monitoring their smartphones. Meanwhile, countries like Singapore and India have been using a contact tracing app to monitor those infected by the virus, while Israel is using a counter terrorism agency to keep track of its citizens’ movements.
However, these initiatives have been met with backlash from privacy experts and activists, who are concerned about mass surveillance emerging as another side-effect of the pandemic.
Now, Varanasi, a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is installing a new network of CCTV cameras that will include automated facial recognition cameras (AFRS). Authorities say the sole purpose of these cameras is to advance security measures and track suspected criminals.
The project, which began earlier this year in July with an investment of Rs 125 crore, is expected to be completed by April 2021. An Austrian company is in charge of its execution, which will be done through the company’s Indian subsidiary.
The project will connect all the police stations in the city to this CCTV network, with 500 kilometres of optical fibre being laid at 700 points in the city. This advanced technology is meant to help identify people by matching their digital images, photos and video feed with the existing database. The new CCTV camera network is part of a government-sponsored “Smart City” project.
Gaurang Rathi, the chief executive officer of Smart City project and municipal commissioner said in a statement, “The network will have 3,000 close circuit television cameras in 14 categories, including AFRS at 22 vital points.” He further added that they will use technologies from the U.S. and Europe. He also added that these cameras will operate under the norms of the National Crime Record Bureau, and create a database of suspects or wanted individuals to easily identify or verify them.
These AFRS will be installed at the city crossings. They will be connected to web-based applications hosted at the NCRB data centre in Delhi. Authorities claim the arrival of this “advanced surveillance” will improve contact tracing and the time it requires by reducing the amount of manpower required.
The announcement comes a month after the Indian government was pulled up for giving “evasive answers” about the creation of its mandatory COVID-19 tracking app, Aarogya Setu. The app, which elicited concerns from privacy experts when it was first announced in April, came under scrutiny after the government failed to answer a query on the app’s creators in response to a Right to Information (RTI) appeal.
This is not the first time a city is using crime control as an excuse to monitor its citizens closely. The South Wales police in the U.K. has been pioneering the use of facial recognition technology, deploying it on around 50 occasions from May of 2017 to April of 2019 at public events, as part of a Home Office. Recently though, a judge ruled its use by a police force as unlawful. The Philippines too announced in March that over a hundred CCTVs capable of facial recognition were being installed in public spaces, in a bid to fight crime. These new cameras are capable of night-vision, so faces and plate numbers will be seen “even in the darkest portion of the city” Manila City Mayor Isko Moreno had claimed. In 2019, San Francisco had banned the use of facial recognition technology by police and government agencies—becoming the first city in the U.S. to do so.
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