For over a century, the police have kept physical records of all cases and HOs, but these are now being digitised through the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS), the main and centralised system for maintaining digital records. The central government provides the core infrastructure to standardise digital data: First Information Reports (FIRs), various documents related to investigation and evidence, and the final police reports to be submitted to the courts. The CCTNS also allows geo-tagging of offences. However, for various state governments which are trying to build their own infrastructure over and above this standard, CCTNS extends far beyond digitisation into setting up a crime-mapping, analytics, and a predictive system.
A super platform and an opaque black box, the CCTNS has been designed to be the digital repository of every local police record. It is hoped that it will make policing more efficient by allowing local police stations to know about a person’s entire criminal history at the click of the mouse: cases in which the person has been accused, facial photographs, the crimes committed, the number of days held in detention, and whether the courts acquitted or convicted them.
The central government and the tech industry maintain that systems such as the CCTNS will allow for ‘objective’, ‘smart’, error-free algorithm-based detection of criminal hotspots and predictive policing. In reality since these databases are fed by the police’s centuries-long caste-based system of preventive surveillance and predictive policing (which has already determined who is a criminal and what crimes habitual criminals commit repeatedly), there is no possibility of objectivity or lack of caste bias. The CCTNS only adds a technological veneer to a caste-based policing model. While the ideological purpose matters little to local police stations, its material benefits include hours of saved time and seamless digital transmission of produced criminalities across jurisdictions.
The government and the tech industry maintain that [digital] systems will allow for ‘objective’, ‘smart’, algorithm-based detection of criminal hotspots and predictive policing. In reality since these databases are fed by the police’s centuries-long caste-based system of preventive surveillance and predictive policing there is no possibility of objectivity or lack of caste bias.
The reliance on and aspirations for predictive policing are a part of the aim for the Indian police to be among the world’s most advanced and professionalised force. The police claim that their limitations are inadequate staffing, poor technological skills and an overworked force. The goal is to have the same technological tools in every police station in India as in London and New York, to increase efficiency and technological expertise and obviate the need to recruit more police officers while also cutting workloads. Despite concerns raised about predictive policing in the UK and US with respect to racial profiling and discrimination, mass surveillance, arbitrary search and seizure, as well as the erosion of the fundamental right to privacy, the Indian police have sought to enhance predictive policing technologies such as hotspot detection and data mining.
The CCTNS is the future of India’s police registers. By 2030, it is hoped that the platform will be adequately developed to free police officers of maintaining any paper registers. Since state governments are free to tweak CCTNS as they please, several states have been collecting biometric details (iris scans, facial prints, etc.) of HOs and even first-time offenders. A senior police officer in Bhopal claimed that the CCTNS is being used in Madhya Pradesh as a repository of all criminals. CCTNS integrates various dossiers: history sheets and goonda files, fingerprints, footprints, details about family members of accused persons, etc. The details of family members are obtained for a ‘deterrent effect’, so that purported criminals do not commit further crimes. (A goonda is what the police call individuals who are more likely to commit assault or disturb public peace by indulging in general public violence and rioting. Derived from a pejorative term in Hindi that roughly translates as ‘rowdy’ or ‘hooligan’, the police surveilled such identified individuals through various Goonda Acts from as early as 1926.)
Permanent databases do not spare children either. One 16-year-old Pardhi had his details forcibly recorded (including fingerprints and photos) on a charge for which he was eventually given a suspended sentence. Creating permanent records of children, whether or not they are convicted, may be in direct contravention of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, which espouses the principle of a ‘fresh start’ for a child. This, however, is of no concern to the local cop.
The problem here, much like in the case of traditional surveillance, is that the police operate without a clear legal framework and use ambiguity to their advantage. The Madhya Pradesh Police Regulations allow for the creation of physical databases of HOs and briefly state the manner of their surveillance. This legal framework, which has remained unchanged over decades, did not foresee today’s digital advances. Consequently, using technology for surveillance, with its associated set of new problems (permanence, security, and privacy, to name but a few), has virtually no legal basis and therefore very few constraints. In a landmark judgment in 2017, the Indian judiciary confirmed that Indian citizens have a fundamental right to privacy; however, the judiciary has yet to extend this to the question of maintenance of HO registers and databases.
The only limits to the breadth of police surveillance appear to be infrastructural constraints. To address these problems, the state of Telangana, for instance, is investing in a multi-storey centre to house its ambitious Integrated People Information Hub (IPIH), a database containing 360º profiles of every resident. Other states plan to follow suit.
The state’s inability to self-regulate its use of technology is amply demonstrated by the ham-fisted introduction of the Aadhaar, a ‘unique identification’ number linking biometric information and various databases necessary for accessing welfare programmes, setting up bank accounts, purchasing SIM cards, and paying income tax, among others until the Supreme Court directed the government to regulate and limit its mandatory use for specific public services.