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India’s CCTV Spy Network, Part 1 of 2

This is Part One of a 2-part series of articles about India’s recent efforts to introduce integrated video and face recognition biometric identification systems across their vast and populous nation.]

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Cities across the vast and diverse country of India, once a British colony, are stepping up their crime-stopping efforts by inviting technology providers to bid on installing and maintaining networks of CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras hooked up to database-driven biometric facial recognition identification software systems.

The wisdom, ethics, and legality of such public surveillance programs is being debated around the world as China rapidly takes first place for its budding totalitarian national video camera and face recognition system.

London, England is a large metropolitan area known for its expansive collection of CCTV cameras. So far, government officials have been reluctant to embrace the privacy-invading combination of video recordings with face recognition biometric identification systems.

Historically, the British people are against snooping, which many still remember was practiced earnestly by German Nazis in World War II to persecute their foes.

In 2013, the British Home Office published the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice which included automatic license plate number recognition systems by local and government authorities. The code is designed to protect citizen’s rights by ensuring that CCTV use is “characterised as surveillance by consent, and such consent on the part of the community must be informed consent and not assumed by a system operator. Surveillance by consent should be regarded as analogous to policing by consent.”

It might surprise you to know that the vast majority of CCTV cameras in Britain are operated by private individuals or companies, especially to monitor the interiors of shops and businesses, rather than by government agencies.

With a national population of over 1.3 billion people, Forbes ranked India among the most corrupt of the 180 countries rated in 2018 but noted some improvement during the previous year:

“India’s corruption score has steadily improved in recent years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept into power in May 2014 pledging to break the cycle of seemingly unending, multibillion dollar corruption scandals that defined the decade-long tenure of the previous government and drained the Indian treasury. Although low-level graft has remained pervasive, the end of 2017 marked three and a half years of generally scandal-free governance under the Modi administration.”

However, in February 2018, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) charged high-profile and much-lauded billionaire Nirav Modi – who is not related to the Prime Minister – of “masterminding a $1.8 billion fraud against one of the country’s biggest state run banks.”

There is so much corruption going on in India that Wikipedia has a page with “a list of scandals in India since independence, including political, financial and corporate scandals.”

In 2012, the city of Mumbai, India invited global technology companies to submit requests for proposals (RFPs) to design, implement, and operate for five years a state-of-art IP-based CCTV (closed-circuit television) Surveillance System to help police that municipality.

Cities Raipur and Surat followed suit as an increasing number of crime-plagued cities in India struggled with ideas on how to restore law and order in their localities.

In 2012, an industry executive observed, “Dubai has over 70,000 CCTV cameras, New York close to a million. We have not yet started. Given the security problems we face, the sky is the limit.”

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Five years ago, India’s approach to video surveillance was hodge-podge, according to the same industry insider:

“It’s a bit like the blind men and the elephant. In Raipur, the municipality is doing the project. In Surat, it’s a public-private partnership. In Mumbai, it is the state’s home department. In some cases, these are just show-pony projects. The authorities are deciding on the system specifications [number of cameras to buy] based on the [meager] budgets they have.”

At the time, several concerns about city-wide CCTV surveillance systems were brought up, including worries that the various Indian governments involved would not be able to keep the CCTVs up and running. In Pune, for example, there was a bombing incident where low-intensity blasts weren’t recorded because a camera installed there which was meant to capture such crimes was inoperative. Reports suggested that the Pune Municipal Corporation had failed to pay contractor which disconnected the services before they were needed.

Questions about who would monitor the networks and how abuse would be prevented were also raised in 2012.

The government in Mumbai specifically wanted a surveillance system that used facial recognition technology to match recorded images with a database of personal identifying information. Five years ago, that technology was in its infancy compared to today.

There was discussion about how effective facial recognition technology was and whether or not police would spend their days chasing down “false positives” – false alarms generated by facial recognition technology on the likelihood (rather than the certainty) of one face resembling another.

[Part Two of this 2-part series will explore the topic of government-driven integrated video and face recognition biometric identification systems right here on]

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