With reports now emerging that the Delhi Police is using drones to check for people who are breaking the curfew in Delhi, we examine responses we have received in reply to Right to Information requests filed about the usage of drones in Delhi in February. The Delhi Police admits to hiring drones for various purposes over the course of the last few months including the 2020 Delhi Legislative Assembly elections and during the riots in North-East Delhi. This is being done with no guidelines in place for their use and thus are not only a violation of the right to privacy of individuals but also a tool of mass surveillance in the hands of the government.
The Delhi Police has been using drones for surveillance of crowds for quite some time now. The first reports emerged in December, 2019 when it was reported that anti-CAA protests had been surveilled via drones to keep a close eye on the protesters. This was in addition to the Delhi Police’s use of facial recognition technology to identify the protesters (read our previous blog post where we sent a notice to the Delhi Police to cease such use here).
Subsequently, there were reports that the Delhi Police used drones on crowds during the Republic Day parade in January, 2020 to “maintain vigil”. In February, 2020 there were reports that the Delhi Police had used drones to “monitor the situation” during the riots in North-East Delhi.
Now reports are emerging that the Delhi Police is using drones to ensure that people do not violate the 21-day curfew imposed by the Government in a bid to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The Delhi Police confirms using drones
On February 14, 2020, we filed a Right to Information request with the Delhi Police asking the following questions:
1. Whether the Delhi Police has procured drones for any purpose?
2. Details of the tender issued for such procurement.
3. Information about the vendor from whom the drones were procured and the total expenditure incurred.
4. Information with regard to the technical specifications of the drones.
5. Whether these drones were deployed in December, 2019 and January, 2020?
6. Any guidelines, rules or standard operating procedures in place which govern the use of these drones by the Delhi Police.
Our request was transferred to various departments of the Delhi Police. We received replies from multiple departments denying any use of drones by them. However, in a reply dated March 13, 2020, the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the North-East District, Seelampur, Delhi Police confirmed that they have been using drones.
Here is a point-wise summary of their reply:
1. The North-East District has hired drones for maintaining law and order.
2. Since the drones have been hired, there was no tender which was issued for procurement.
3. The Delhi Police has been hiring drones from the open market through Station House Officers (SHO).
4. The technical specifications of these hired drones are not available with the PIO.
5. The PIO confirmed that drones were used during the 2020 Delhi Legislative Assembly election which were held on February 8, 2020 and during the riots in North-East Delhi which began on February 23, 2020.
6. In response to the query asking whether there are any guidelines, rules or standard operating procedure governing the use of drones by the Delhi Police, the reply was “no comment”.
Why does this matter anyway?
There are multiple problems in the way that drones are being used in Delhi.
1. Hiring drones instead of procuring through a publicly available tender diminishes the transparency of the whole exercise. As a result of not releasing a tender, we now have no information with regard to from whom these tenders are being hired, how much expenditure has been incurred and what is the scope of their use.
2. Since there are no publicly available guidelines, rules or standard operating procedures with regard to the use of drones, this whole process is shrouded in opacity. There is no information as to how these drones are being used, who is authorized to use them, who has access to the information gathered and how this information is being processed.
So what now?
IFF has consistently been against use of such invasive technology especially in a legal vacuum. The only regulations for drones in India are those which subsist for commercial purposes and which have been developed by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). Drones are being used in Delhi without any guidelines, rules or standard operating procedures which have been made publicly available. It is our opinion that use of such technology can never be justified if not done in a transparent manner. We urge the Delhi Police to make any such guidelines, if they exist, publicly available. If not, we urge the Delhi Police to immediately cease such use. This is because even in extraordinary times such as these, we have to ensure that basic fundamental rights, such as privacy, are not the scapegoats which have to be sacrificed for the purported greater good.
(This post has been authored by Anushka Jain, a legal fellow at IFF, and reviewed by IFF staffer Sidharth)
- Right to Information Request filed by IFF questioning the use of drones by the Delhi Police (link)
- Reply received from the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the North-East District, Seelampur, Delhi Police (link)
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