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Swapping Cops for Cameras: Repressive Panopticon or the Future of Policing? A Case Study on Hyderabad’s Government Surveillance
Image Source: https://libreshot.com/cctv-camera-on-modern-building/
By Alexandra Kerrigan
Aly Kerrigan is a second-year student at the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts and Sciences majoring in urban studies.
Amid escalating concerns regarding racial justice in recent years, police system reform has emerged as one of the most salient topics in politics. Several competing visions for the future of policing have emerged within the United States—with some cities adopting an abolition approach, others opting to defund their police systems, and many maintaining or increasing their police presence. American politicians can glean valuable insights by examining the routes taken by foreign cities that have similarly been urged to reform their police systems. In response to a 2013 terrorist attack, Hyderabad, India, is one of such cities rethinking its policing efforts. Within the last decade, Hyderabad has transformed its police system into a technologically advanced surveillance network, yielding mixed reviews from the public.
Following the 2013 attack, Hyderabad swiftly installed thousands of cameras across the city in an effort to reduce crime and bolster security. It has since become a leading city in surveillance worldwide. Their system includes facial recognition technology (FRT) and an extensive biometrics database alongside a willing police force. It places in the top 10 list of global cities for both cameras per person and cameras per square mile. A 2022 report by the UK-based tech research firm Comparitech found that there are 900,000 cameras for 10,801,163 people, which is equivalent to 83.32 cameras per 1,000 people. 
Despite the extensive implementation of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, the link between increased surveillance and crime rates in Hyderabad in the long term is unclear. Police Commissioner C.V. Anand believes that surveillance is integral to controlling crime rates in Hyderabad, citing that a year after cameras and other technologies were deployed in the city, mugging for jewelry dropped from 1,033 incidents per year to less than 50.  Property offenses also decreased by 28 percent, yet detection of property offenses increased by 14.6 percent. Crime against women decreased by 8.34 percent, and road accidents decreased by around 19 percent.  However, crime trended upward in 2022, calling into question the lasting effect of surveillance implementation.
Critics also denounce the heightened surveillance as an invasion of privacy and a tool of suppression and injustice. Campaigners against the use of CCTV contend that this surveillance is illegal because it violates India’s Identification of Prisoners Act of 1920, which bans police officials from taking photographs of individuals unless they are arrested or convicted of a crime. The sharing of such photographs with other law enforcement agencies is also banned. Furthermore, activists have raised concerns over the lack of regulation around the use and storage of data collected through CCTVs. 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, lawyer Anushka Jain of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) said.
Beyond concerns regarding data safety, many individuals claim that surveillance and FRT are being used to squander rights to free speech, expression, and assembly. According to Srinivas Kodali, a researcher and digital rights activist, this surveillance significantly restricts people’s right to assemble and protest freely. Now, individuals who gather and travel in large numbers are stopped, rendering Hyderabad as a “no-protest zone” where it is “near-impossible” to organize. 
Similar to the U.S. citizens who have raised contentions against policing, residents of Hyderabad have protested the unequal leveraging of surveillance which has led to disproportionate targeting of marginalized individuals by law enforcement. A report by Common Cause India and Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) found that “the government was nearly three times as likely to install CCTVs in slums and poor localities.”  Many of these low income areas have significant Muslim populations, which, combined with police biases, leads to disproportionate targeting of Muslims. It makes sense to invest in more surveillance in areas with higher crime rates and increased demand for footage. However, police must be cognizant that this practice perpetuates the cycle of the over policing in marginalized communities.
Anti-surveillance activists frequently refer to the philosophical idea of the panopticon as a symbol of the unethical nature of surveillance. In the late 18th century, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed the panopticon as a prison design wherein cells are organized in a circular formation around a central watchtower, where a guard could be watching at all times. Inmates, however, are unable to determine whether they are being watched at any given moment. This threat of surveillance, in turn, causes inmates to constantly “self-regulate” their behavior just in case the guard’s eyes are on them. The widespread presence of CCTV cameras draws many parallels to the structure of the panopticon. Citizens roaming the streets of Hyderabad are constantly reminded of their own surveillance via intentionally visible cameras, and the Command and Control Center effectively serves as a watch tower—the focal point of oversight. Discipline is ubiquitous and power is embedded amongst every individual, rather than centralized in the government. Furthermore, the heightened surveillance within low-income, Muslim communities in Hyderabad makes these effects the strongest within the most marginalized communities. Wealthier residents are afforded the peace of mind that they exist outside the panoptic gaze of the watch tower, while low income residents are hyper-aware of their own surveillance. This discrepancy occurs to the extent that wealthy residents often install surveillance systems of their own.  In doing so, they distance themselves from the “prisoner” title and take on the role of the “guard” within the panopticon model. Thus, the current state of Hyderabad can be characterized as a panopticon. The insidious panopticism disproportionately impacts marginalized members of society while allowing privileged members to evade its grasp.
As mainstream American politics grapples with how to integrate more equity into the policing system, it is imperative that policymakers look to other cities for inspiration. The United States can use Hyderabad as a case study to determine what does and does not work to optimize the way we minimize crime domestically and ensure protection. Based on its ineffective and controversial ramifications, however, the United States should not emulate Hyderabad’s extensive implementation of surveillance. CCTV and FRT have proven to target marginalized communities, breach privacy, raise data safety concerns, and fail to reduce crime in the long-term. Implementing similar measures in the United States would likely only exacerbate existing discrimination issues related to current policing methods. Ultimately, while surveillance may not be the future of policing in the United States, we should continue to explore innovative avenues for reform to pursue a more just future.
 Bischoff, Paul. “Surveillance Camera Statistics: Which City Has the Most CCTV Cameras?” Comparitech. May 23, 2023. https://www.comparitech.com/vpn-privacy/the-worlds-most-surveilled-cities/.
 Jain, Rishabh. “Facial Recognition Wielded in India to Enforce Covid Policy.” AP News. December 20, 2022. https://apnews.com/article/technology-health-india-hyderabad-law-enforcement-9b5e249d7ef5cefd3c6dc74c2c4b5b84.
 Telangana Today. “Crime Rate in Cyberabad Drops by 12 per Cent in 2022.” December 23, 2022. https://telanganatoday.com/crime-rate-in-cyberabad-drops-by-12-per-cent-in-2022.
 Kodali, Srinivas. “Policing in Cyberabad: India’s Techno Dystopia Encroaching on People’s Rights.” Question of Cities. October 7, 2022. https://questionofcities.org/policing-in-cyberabad-indias-techno-dystopia-encroaching-on-peoples-rights/.
 Deccan Chronicle. “Hyderabad Has Highest Number of CCTV Cameras; Only 25 PC Installed by Govt: Report.” April 12, 2023. https://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/current-affairs/100423/hyderabad-has-highest-number-of-cctv-cameras-only-25-pc-installed-by.html.
 Deccan Chronicle. “Hyderabad Has Highest Number of CCTV Cameras; Only 25 PC Installed by Govt: Report.”
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.