Hyderabad is on the brink of becoming a total surveillance city, human rights organisation Amnesty International said on Wednesday.

The organisation said that Hyderabad is the most surveilled cities in the world and a Command and Control Centre meant for connecting Telangana’s facial recognition-capable CCTV infrastructure was being constructed there.

“Situated in Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills, the CCC [Command and Control Centre ] will reportedly support the processing of data from up to 6,00,000 cameras at once, with the possibility to increase this scope much further across the region,” the group said. “These cameras can be used in combination with Hyderabad Police’s existing facial recognition software to track individuals.”

The organisation through its “Ban the Scan” campaign has asked the government to stop using the facial recognition technology for mass surveillance in India. The research regarding the use of facial surveillance has recently begun in Hyderabad following a same project in New York City.

The Hyderabad research is in partnership with the digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation and international human rights organisation Article 19.

A study by the Internet Freedom Foundation has found that Telangana has the highest number of facial recognition technology projects in India.

“Amnesty International is calling for a total ban on the state and private sector use, development, production, sales, and export of facial recognition technology for mass surveillance purposes,” the group said.

Amnesty International said that Telangana has in recent years become a “test site” for increased usage of facial recognition technologies against civilians.

The organisation said that it conducted a survey, along with its partners, mapping Kala Pathar and Kishan Bagh neighbourhoods that have CCTV cameras installed. An analysis showed that 5,30,864 square metres, or 53.7% of the total area, was covered by the cameras in Kala Pathar, the organisation said.

In Kishan Bagh, the camera covered 5,13,683 square meters, or 62.7% of the total area, it said.

“Authorities in India have a lengthy record of using facial recognition technology in contexts where human rights are at stake, with recent examples including enforcing Covid-19 lockdown measures, identifying voters in municipal elections, and policing protests,” the group said.

It added: “The rights of Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, transgender communities, and historically disadvantaged sections of society, are particularly at risk by mass surveillance.”

Police and companies activities

The organisation said that its Digital Verification Corps found dozens of incidents on social media platforms between November 2019 and July 2021 in which the Hyderabad Police were allegedly asking civilians to remove their masks and taking their photographs without explaining the reason behind it.

It claimed that other incidents showed that the police randomly demanded facial and fingerprint scans from civilians.

The group pointed out that under India’s Identification of Prisoners Act of 1920, the police are not permitted to take photographs of people unless they are arrested or convicted for a crime. They cannot also share such photographs with other law enforcement agencies.

Amnesty International also contacted five companies asking them questions on their facial recognition related activities and human rights policies. These companies are IDEMIA, NEC India, Staqu, Vision-Box and INNEFU Labs.

The group said that only INNEFU Labs responded, saying that that it was not “under any obligation to adhere to any terms and conditions” of its vendor companies.

In another response, the company said it did not have a “stated human rights policy” but that it was “follow[ing] Indian laws and guidelines”.

Amnesty International pointed out that all companies must have a human rights policy in place under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“Facial recognition technology inherently poses a high risk to human rights, and these five vendors have failed to demonstrate they are adequately addressing and mitigating the risks of providing this technology to government agencies,” the group alleged.

Matt Mahmoudi, Amnesty International’s Artificial Intelligence and Big Data researcher, said that it has become impossible to walk down a street without “risking exposure to facial recognition”.

“In addition to CCTV, we are concerned that law enforcement’s practice of using tablets to stop, search and photograph civilians without charge could be used for facial recognition,” he added.

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