Zarar Baig, a gym trainer, was on his way back home in the Kumaraswamy layout of Bengaluru on his Royal Enfield Bullet recently when he was stopped by a few cops.
They seemed to be checking vehicles at a picketing point on the double road near Nikhaar Jewellers, close to Richmond Road.
“The time was around midnight. A cop came up to me with a gadget that looked like the KYC biometric machine that mobile service providers use,” he recalled.
“The cop glanced at me and then at my bike and asked if it was mine. I smirked and simply asked him whether I looked like a thief,” he told South First.
“The cop came closer and asked me to put my thumb on the equipment. He physically went through all of the bike’s documents, then let me go,” Baig said.
The equipment the cop used for Baig is the front-end of what is called the Mobile-Crime and Criminal Tracking Network Systems (M-CCTNS), — and the police in Karnataka have been using it for over a year now.
However, while the police are quite happy with this system, there are people who fear that it could be misused, especially if it uploads and stores the thumbprints of everyone who is subjected to a scan.
The cops sought to allay such fears, claiming that thumbprints are not collected from civilians at random spot-checks.
What is CCTNS?
The CCTNS is a project implemented by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) to apparently create a comprehensive integrated system for effective policing.
It is said to include a nationwide online tracking system that integrates more than 14,000 police stations across the country.
The project was reportedly conceived in 2008 by the then Union home minister, P Chidambaram, soon after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.
It was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) in 2009, and allocated a fund of ₹2,000 crore.
A pilot phase of the project was launched in January 2013 by the then Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde.
Recent use of CCTNS
Recently, the police in the Yeshwanthpur area of Bengaluru used the CCTNS to nab a 30-year-old murder suspect who had jumped bail 12 years ago — in 2010 — and had been absconding since then.
The night-beat cops stumbled on this man loitering suspiciously near BK Nagar on 15 November. When they initially questioned him, they found that he was giving contradicting statements about his presence there.
They took him to the police station, where his thumbprint was scanned on the M-CCTNS device: It showed he had a criminal record.
But that was not all. The CCTNS also displayed the case details: S Ramesh Kumar, a tractor driver from Channapatna, was a murder suspect who went absconding after being granted bail in 2010.
It also showed that he and his associates were accused of killing a landlord in 2005 in Tavarekere, within the Byadrahalli Police Station limits.
People raise concerns
That the cops use this technology on random people to confirm if someone moving suspiciously could be a criminal has not gone down well with everyone.
Many consider it an infringement on their constitutional and fundamental rights. Especially worried are the ones who love a good nightlife, who like to take a walk at night, or those who work at night to earn a livelihood.
They said they would not be amused if cops demanded that they scan their thumbprint to ascertain whether they were criminals.
Some even assume that their fingerprints are being taken, recorded and stored by the cops for reasons best known to them.
One netizen took to Twitter to ask whether the practice of taking these thumbprints was legal, and whether there was a new law regarding it.
Policemen stopping random people in the night and asking for biometric fingerprints. Is this legal or any new law ? @BlrCityPolice @CPBlr
— Kemp (@ardhamaanava) November 24, 2022
Another lawyer, tagging all senior police officials, asked on Twitter if cops had been instructed to scan the fingerprints of random people as opposed to convicts and those arrested.
@DCPNorthBCP @DCPSouthBCP @dcpwhitefield @DCPSEBCP @DCPEASTBCP @DCPCentralBCP @DCPNEBCP
Is this true? Have policemen been instructed to scan fingerprints of random people as opposed to convicts and arrestees? #Bengaluru #Karnataka @dhanyarajendran @anusharavi10 https://t.co/nWAKafvyG3
— Rahul Machaiah (@rahulmachaiah) November 25, 2022
The legal view
Senior practising criminal advocate in Bengaluru Trivikram told South First: “The scanning of fingerprints of any random individual is unconstitutional. It will be contrary to the Right to Privacy as per the Justice Puttaswamy case of 2017.”
Unless there was a grave suspicion about someone, scanning their fingerprint would be in violation of the individual’s fundamental rights, he asserted.
According to Article 21 of the Constitution, which deals with the Protection of Life and Personal Liberty, no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law, and this fundamental right is available to every person, citizens and foreigners alike, the law makes clear, Trivikram said.
Advocate Trivikram, quoting a Supreme Court observation in the case of Selvi Vs the State of Karnataka, said the top court held that the consent of the accused plays a vital role in conducting a narco-analysis test, and if there was no consent then it would violate their fundamental rights.
“The highest court of this country gives such an order for a multi-crore stamp paper scandal accused (the Telgi case). How can the police have such methods to scan random individuals using their fingerprint in public?” he asked.
“The police must implement robust systems which are aligned to the law laid down by the Supreme Court. Implementing these techniques can cause humiliation and insult to the person who is subject to scanning of fingerprints,” he stated.
However, Siji Malayil, another practising criminal lawyer in Bengaluru, told South First it was a good thing that the police were adopting such technology to ascertain the criminal antecedents of suspects.
“If an individual is confident that there are no criminal record against him, then why should he fear getting his fingerprints scanned? They (cops) just match or compare them with the existing fingerprint records they have in their database,” he said.
“This is just like the police conducting drunk-and-driving tests. Everyone suspected to be drunk is made to blow into the breathalyser. If the blood alcohol level is found to be above permissible limits, the offender is booked. One cannot refuse to blow into the breathalyser citing the violation of their rights,” Malayil explained.
Police look to calm worries
South First spoke to a few senior police officers in Bengaluru to ascertain how their subordinates on patrolling duty — especially at night — decide whose thumbprints they must scan, and why.
A senior police inspector attached to the Southeast Division said: “We go by ‘reasonable suspicion’.”
The officer that the police, out of their professional experience, look for certain indicators in the body language of people.
“When a person tries to run away or change direction all of a sudden after he encounters a cop or a group of cops, then certainly there is something suspicious about that person. Initially, we request some identifying documents and ask them why they are present at an unusual place at an unusual hour. If we get contradictory answers or suspect that the person is lying, we subject them to thumbprint scanning,” he explained.
“Reasonable suspicion can also be that a person might be carrying a weapon, or an instrument to break into a house, or, for example, spotting someone jumping a gate or a compound,” the inspector told South First.
“As per the Karnataka Police (KP) Act, the police can seek identity documents from anyone they suspect, and if they fail to produce such documents, its an offence under the law, for which the police can detain and question the person about their whereabouts, family members, or friends,” explained the officer.
“When the suspected person’s thumbprint is scanned in the M-CCTNS, our job becomes easier. It streamlines the investigation, as we don’t have to take the detainee to the police station,” he said.
“We have sensitised our subordinates to be polite and gentle with anyone and explain to even the suspect that their thumbprint is not collected or stored anywhere, but only matched with the lakhs in the database to rule out criminal antecedents,” the inspector said.
A deeper dive into CCTNS
Another senior police inspector told South First: “We have been collecting fingerprints of criminals accused in cases such as dacoity, robberies, burglary, thefts, and heinous crimes like murders, attempt to murder, sexual assaults, dowry deaths, and dowry harassment.”
He added that the police also collect fingerprints of rowdy elements whose history sheets are open, and keep a tab on whether they are attending their court hearings regularly.
“The only cases that we do not collect fingerprints are for missing person cases and petty cases,” the officer said.
Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) Umesh Kumar, who headed the Economics Offences Wing (CID) before he was transferred to administration, told South First: “With this CCTNS technology, we have identified suspects in around 7,000 instances over a year now, and this is not a joke.”
He added: “This system only verifies. There is no recording; there is no storing. Let them (suspects) refuse, but the police reserve the right to check and verify suspects.”
Kumar also said: “On average, around four M-CCTNS devices are being used by each police station’s night patrolling teams.”
He added that the database was spread across different states, and synchronised and updated accordingly.
“People from other states, and also from the Army or the BSF, come to study the CCTNS from our state,” he said.