Centre for Internet & Society

The feeds will be beamed to a video wall that stretches 21 feet across at the police’s command and control room.

The article by Tariq Engineer was published in Mumbai Mirror today. Sunil Abraham was quoted.

When seven bombs exploded on local trains between Khar and Borivali killing 209 people and injuring 714 in 2006, the Maharashtra police looked for CCTV footage but couldn’t find any because no cameras existed at railway stations back then.

When terrorists landed near Machimar colony in Cuffe Parade in 2008 and proceeded to slaughter hundreds of people in the city, CCTV footage was found only at the Taj and Trident hotels, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and near the Times of India building. Places like Cama Hospital, Nariman House and Leopold Café were simply off the grid.

When Mumbai journalist J Dey was gunned down in Powai in 2011, the police obtained CCTV footage from a shopping centre nearby but it was so blurry, it was useless.

In each of these situations, a fully functioning high-definition CCTV system could have altered the outcome or aided the investigation in critical ways. That glaring gap in Mumbai’s security has now been filled by the Mumbai City Surveillance Project, which officially goes live today.

Over the last 20 months, a total of 4697 cameras have been installed at 1510 locations around Mumbai city. In addition to these, another 146 will survey the Bandra Kurla Complex. The tender for the project was issued in 2015 and won by a consortium led by construction major Larsen & Toubro with MTNL, CMS Computers and Infinova, which supplied the cameras, as partners.

The project is actually an outcome of the 26/11 attacks, having been recommended by the Ram Pradhan Committee, which was appointed to evaluate the city administration’s responses to the terror strike. According to Additional Chief Secretary (Home) KP Bakshi these cameras will ensure roughly 80 per cent of Mumbsi will be watched 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The city’s inhabitants will now have to be on their best behaviour.

“It was the police’s call to decide what they want to observe,” Bakshi said. “Do they want to look at the traffic or at a place where people gamble or do a lot of drinking?” The policeman in charge of selection of spots for installation of cameras was former additional commissioner of police Vasant Dhoble. Calling him a “game-changer”, one of the project managers said it was thanks to Dhoble that all the locations were surveyed in just twoand-a-half months. Dhoble was also instrumental in ensuring that the cameras were installed at the appropriate angles.

While the initial estimate was for 6,000 cameras, it was eventually determined that 4,697 were sufficient at this stage. The cameras have been placed on poles similar to street lights — 2290 of them — some with multiple cameras. “Let’s say there is a pole at Haji Ali Juice Center,” Bakshi said. “It may have three cameras — one looking towards Heera Panna, the other looking towards Mahalaxmi, the third looking towards Worli.”

The vast majority of the cameras — roughly 4200 — will be fixed and stare unblinkingly in one direction. The other 500 will be PTZ, or pan/tilt/zoom cameras, so those watching can scan an area or take a closer look at something that seems suspicious. All of the cameras can see in high definition, with visibility ranging from 50m to 120m. Some of them also have thermal imaging and night vision.

According to those involved in the project, the cameras have been built to withstand the rigours of Mumbai’s weather — specifically the heat and rain. Larsen & Toubro and CMS Computers are responsible for the maintenance of the system. Once the system is fully operational, the target is to have 99% of the cameras live at all times barring accidents. The responsibility for this lies with the service providers.

A smart system

The software that runs the cameras includes a Picture Intelligence Unit (PIU) that will conduct facial recognition analysis. If there is an image of a wanted person in the database, the program will scan the footage for matches and send a signal if it finds any. It will also send an alert if it notices a suspicious object, say one that has been left unattended for a pre-specified amount of time, so the cops can check it out. Tracking police vehicles — like you can follow the path of an Uber or Ola — is yet another feature, so if there is trouble, the nearest vehicle can be dispatched.

By Bakshi’s reckoning, if it is a small crime, then the police should be on the scene in five to ten minutes. If it is something like a bomb blast, then a Quick Response Team will be deployed, which will take a little longer – say 10 to 15 minutes.

Who will be watching you?

The feeds from these cameras will be fed to a video wall that stretches 21 feet across in a control room that has been set up in the Commissioner of Police Headquarters at Crawford Market. The footage will be monitored by about 20 observers who have been specially trained for the job.

However, a project manager said, watching the wall for more than eight minutes “would make anyone mad” because it is so chaotic. Therefore, each observer has his own workstation with three computer screens where he can only watch the feeds he has been assigned.

Entry to the control room is also strictly monitored. It requires five fingerprint access just to get in the room and a thumb print to turn individual workstations on. Mobile phones and personal effects are banned and the computers have no USB ports, so data can’t be copied.

In addition, there are viewing screens in each of the additional commissioner’s zonal offices and in all 23 police stations and roughly 200 observers will eventually be required to operate them. A project manager said he hoped to have a 60-40 or 50-50 split between male and female observers. The observers are monitored by the police, who will decide what actions to take depending on what alerts are generated.

The manpower is being provided by CMS Computers, with applicants having their resumes verified by the police. Observers will spend anywhere from four to six weeks in training before they get on the job, one of the project managers said.

Keeping the data secure

The images from the standard cameras will be stored for 90 days, while those taken with PTZ cameras will be stored for 30 days. “If you store for longer periods, it involves more cost,” Bakshi said. “We feel that if something has to be reported to us, it will be reported within 90 days.”

MTNL has set up a data centre in Worli and a disaster recovery centre in Belapur. If something goes wrong in Worli, there will still be connectivity via Belapur. Both centres have been “tied-up” to make the data as safe as possible. At the test lab at Larsen & Toubro’s project headquarters in Mallet Bunder, they even have a rodent detection device that broadcasts an ultrasonic frequency to drive away rats and stop them from chewing up the wires.

False starts

The project took some time to get off the ground because getting the details worked out was a painstaking elaborate process, former Maharashtra chief secretary ( home) Amitabh Rajan, told Mumbai Mirror. The committee wanted to make sure everything was transparent and that there were no allegations against the project. Control and security were also zealously guarded. “No compromise on security, not even cost,” Rajan said. “Like titration in chemistry, we eventually got the right concentration.”

There was also a battle between a lobby that wanted the system to be set up using dedicated fibre optic cables, and a lobby of technology providers that wanted to use wireless technology. The cops backed cables, which are not only safer but make it easy to add additional bandwidth, whereas wireless networks have limited bandwidth. It was a battle the cops would eventually win but at the cost of time.

The tender process didn’t go smoothly either. Larsen and Toubro were actually the winners of the fourth tender the Maharashtra government put forward. The first tender had to be cancelled because the winning consortium had not properly disclosed its ownership structure — one of the companies turned out to be controlled by a subsidiary of Reliance Industries. The second was cancelled when the vendor’s bank guarantee cheque of Rs 2 crore bounced and the owner disappeared. He was eventually found and arrested two years later.

The third tender received no bidders because it did not offer up-front payment for capital expenditure, according to then IT secretary Rajesh Aggarwal, who was part of the committee. It was finally on the fourth occasion, when the committee decided to offer a certain percentage of the project cost at the start and the rest over the remaining five years as maintenance fees, that a deal could be sealed.

Coordination headache

The next hurdle was coordinating the work between all the different organisations that populate Mumbai. The final total was around 35 or 40 bodies, including the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), BEST and Reliance Power, the police, MMRDA, the Government of India and the High Court. “To explain to everyone that it is a security project and please don’t go by normal rules, you have to give concessions for all these things, all this co-ordination was a big job,” Bakshi said.

It led to delays, which is why the project had to take the extraordinary step of getting permission from the MCGM to dig up roads during the monsoon to lay the fibre-optic cables. It was the only way the project could make its deadline.

“If we had done it like a normal project, it would have taken five years,” an engineer said.

A question of privacy

Two experts in privacy issues that Mirror spoke to said that such a system is in the public interest, but safeguards must be built to prevent abuse. “If the data falls into the wrong hands, it can create havoc,” said Pavan Duggal, an expert in the field of cyber law. “Large scale surveillance of the public should not be the norm, it should be the exemption to the norm.” he said. “It can create unease and lessen the enjoyment of living in a democratic society.”

According to Sunil Abraham, director of the Centre for Internet and Society, the biggest problem is that India does not have an “omnibus privacy law”.

Instead, it has about 50 different laws across sectors and therefore privacy regulations are not consistent, which has created a legal thicket. “110 countries have passed privacy laws to European Union standards. India is really far behind,” he said.

He also listed a number of principles that he hoped the project would abide by, such as the principles of notice (CCTV cameras should be advertised as such), of openness (details of the system should be made public), security (“if you don’t have security, you can’t ensure privacy”) and of access (“we should have a right to get the footage of ourselves”). He also warned against the footage being shared between different security agencies without due process.

Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Bakshi said most of these principles were part of the system. There would be boards demarcating the CCTV cameras, the system would be publicly launched, it was being made as secure as possible and footage could be handed over depending on the circumstances. “If it is your own, then no problem,” Bakshi said. “If it is someone else’s then there are privacy issues. Is it because of criminal intent or you want to track your girlfriend’s other boyfriend to see if he is following her? These are issues. If you want yours, on merit we can give. No issue.”

Another concern Abraham raised is unique to India and the Aadhaar card, which uses biometric data as passwords, not identification. Since the CCTV cameras are high resolution, it raises the risk of someone recreating your iris or finger prints from a captured image and then “somebody could empty your Aadhaarlinked bank accounts,” Abraham said.

This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Abraham pointed out that in 2014 a member of the Chaos Collective Club, the largest association of hackers in Europe, recreated the finger print of a German minister from a photograph they took of her hand.

“Other risks are smaller, a revealing photograph or someone trying to blackmail you,” Abraham said.

Not just for crime

The camera feed has other applications too, beginning with traffic management. An automatic number plate recognition system will be installed as well. If you look around the corner, don’t see a cop and jump a light, you could still get in trouble. “6000 [sic] police in the sky are watching you and you will get a challan sitting at home,” Aggarwal said. Other uses include tracking of encroachments by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai which will have an additional viewing centre. Also garbage disposal and other civic issues such as water logging and a subject dear to Mumbai citizens — potholes. “Somebody complains that this road has a pothole, immediately you can zoom in and see that yes, there is a pothole on this road,” Bakshi said.

There is also a provision to allow a further 103 locations to plug-in and play. For example, if the Taj Mahal Hotel wants the police to survey the hotel for a period of time, the hotel’s CCTV system can be hooked up to the main control room within 48 hours. The same goes for the airport or the railway stations.

Effect of CCTV surveillance

Worldwide the academic literature on CCTV surveillance suggests its effectiveness, especially on crime prevention, is uncertain or limited. “Post crime it really, really helps,” Aggarwal said, “but for prevention, we have to wait and watch. If it reduces sexual harassment for example, then that is priceless. Time will tell how people try to beat the system and how the system tries to catch up.”

Joint Commissioner of Police, Law and Order, Deven Bharti said he was already seeing an improvement in traffic management and in prevention and detection of crimes thanks to the 3000-plus cameras that were live when Mirror spoke to him two days ago, though he said he could not provide details. “The system is working to our satisfaction,” Bharti said.

Bakshi said the effects of the system should start showing roughly a month after the project is fully operational. “In Pune, results started being seen within a month. Once all 4700 [cameras] are live, you will start seeing the results on traffic violations, street crimes, and at general discipline level. [First] Let the people know they are under surveillance, that they are completely covered in Mumbai by CCTV.”

The total cost of the project is Rs 1008 crore. Out of this, about Rs 400 crore has already been spent. The balance will be paid out in regular installments until October 2021. At that point the Maharashtra government and Mumbai police will take complete control of the project. “We presume that in five years’ time, we will have enough trained people to run it ourselves,” Bakshi said.