Telangana: The role of facial recognition system in Khadeer’s custodial death case

'What has happened to Mohammad Khadir is wrong. There has to be an investigation into this and corrections have to be made in Telangana with regard to policing practices'.

By Srinivas Kodali

Hyderabad: Thirty-five-year-old Mohammed Khadeer, a resident of Medak, died because of alleged custodial torture at the hands of the Telangana Police. He was picked up by the cops because his facial features matched a suspect in connection to a chain-snatching case from the town of Medak.

He was let go by the Medak police after being allegedly subjected to severe custodial torture. It eventually led to his death while being treated in Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad on February 18. Khadir was an innocent man according to the Telangana Police, but why was he arrested at all?

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As part of any law and order investigation, the police have the powers to detain, arrest and question potential suspects. Any suspect who is being detained, arrested or being ordered to submit himself for questioning is required to be given notices or warrants under various sections of policing procedures and laws. In day to day policing these practices of issuing notices/warrants are not always followed by the police officials anymore

In the case of Khadir, we do not yet know what kind of due process was followed while he was detained as a suspect. 

According to Rohini Priyadarshini – Superintendent of Police Medak District, “He was brought for questioning in connection with a chain snatching case as his facial features looked similar to the suspect in CCTV footage. He was brought to Medak town police station on February 2. His call data records were verified and he was let off on Feb 3 after confirmation about his non-involvement in case” as reported in the Times of India.

The Medak police personnel travelled all the way to Hyderabad and arrested Khair because somehow his facial features matched with the database in Medak (possibly because of the facial recognition system deployed across Telangana). 

It is clear there has been an error of a certain kind that has been made which wrongly led to the arrest Mohammed Khair. While the police declared him innocent and released him, he was still subjected to a gruesome form of torture because some systems has identified his facial features similar to a criminal recorded using CCTV cameras.

In India, being subjected to a police investigation is a punishment in itself. When this happens to minorities, it is further extreme and unfortunately ignored most of the time. It is important that these lapses that took place in policing practices are rectified, so that they don’t happen to anyone ever. 

Imperfect AI tech

It is unclear at this stage how the Medak police have identified Mohammed Khadeer Khan as a potential suspect. While the statement of the Superintendent of Police gives us a hint of facial recognition being used, the system couldn’t have identified Khadeer unless he was an ex-convict.

At present, according to the Telangana police, only the photos and biometrics of ex-criminals are stored by them in the Crime and Criminal Tracking Networks and Systems,(CCTNS) which is further used for facial recognition. The lack of transparency on how facial recognition and other policing practices are being deployed in Telangana makes it hard to conclude with any certainty. 

A lot of details of this particular case are unknown at present, it is likely to remain that way with officials tight-lipped on what has transpired. Since it was CCTV cameras that are partly responsible for what has transpired, maybe it will be CCTV cameras that will help us tell us what happened to Mohammad Khadir.

Every police station is required to maintain CCTV recordings inside their police station for 30 days. The demand to make this CCTV footage public from January 27 (the day he was reportedly picked up), has to be made. Station officials responsible for his custodial torture, also need to be subjected to investigation.

No info on how facial recognition works

There are zero documents in the public on how the Telangana Police Facial Recognition System functions. If there is a potential match of facial features as was the case with Khadir, then the assumption is that the police will detain the person and produce them in front of a magistrate and follow up with investigation procedures.

One of those practised procedures now is to determine the location of the suspect during the time of crime using Call Data Records of the suspect’s mobile cellular service. Obtaining anyone’s Call Data Records requires warrants that need to be submitted to the Telecom company in question to share the details. Again, there are zero documents available in public on how the police in Telangana is doing this. 

Ideally, all of these policing practices should be publically available as part of policing laws, rules, and policing manuals. The Telangana Police Manual and Standing Orders ideally should have the details on how the police are to conduct themselves during arrest, custody management, procedures on CCTV, surveillance like facial recognition, and evidence management.

You will not find the Telangana Police Manual anywhere publicly. Since the formation of Telangana in 2014, there has been no new manual that was published. This is a problem as we as a society do not know what policing practices are being followed. 

What has happened to Mohammad Khadir is wrong. There has to be an investigation into this and corrections have to be made in Telangana with regard to policing practices. But we can’t make these corrections if we don’t yet know and understand policing practices.

With respect to the new policing practices that have emerged like facial recognition, call data records, CCTVs, etc, it should be our duty to demand transparency and accountability as much as we demand accountability for custodial torture. 

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