With symptoms of Bombay Fever, they had to rush them and admit them at the police hospital. In the days to follow, the Spanish Flu which ravaged India extracted a heavy toll of over 15 million.
Indians. India’s prevailing situation, as during the Spanish Flu pandemic, appears gloomy. India with over 4.2 million cases has the second-largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases globally, and its death toll is third-highest in the world. The present outbreak of the coronavirus in the country has once again automatically forced the police to assume the role of frontline combatants that claimed valuable lives of several police personnel in the line of duty. With the situation still worsening, it appears as though history is about to repeat itself.
The present pandemic is the most significant challenge the world has faced in decades. In just a few short months, it has altered people’s lives on an unprecedented scale, impacting every organisation, including the functioning of the police. Interestingly, COVID has been a game-changer. The pandemic has not slowed technological innovation; it has magnified it to an incredible level. It has forced police organisations to innovate and serve people without jeopardising their lives by adopting the technology. It’s particularly evident in the case of the Chinese police, which has massively embraced technology and outmanoeuvred other agencies with a better and sharper response. The advantages of adopting artificial intelligence, machine learning, and facial recognition technology have taught us that a techno-driven strategy may be more productive to identify, isolate and quarantine infected individuals. The technological infrastructure that got created by various police organisations around the world has been crucial to their pandemic response. While such technologies, on the one hand, can play a positive role and diminish the need for direct physical policing, on the other, they can prove Orwellian by unfolding into a tool for spying and repression.
After the onset of the pandemic, a few police stations witnessed a wave of innovation, especially in Delhi and other parts of India. Sensor-based contactless sanitiser dispensing machines, artificial intelligence-enabled thermal cameras, video intercoms and UV disinfectant boxes to sterilise the documents found their way into some police stations. Some such innovations came from constables and not as expected from high-tech companies. An innovative constable from TSP (Tamilnadu Special Police) in Tamil Nadu created a contactless sensor-based sanitisation machine which is now being used in their establishments.
Similarly, to contain the pandemic in Mumbai, police deployed drones and Artificial Intelligence technology to monitor the densely populated neighbourhoods of the city to enforce social distancing. In some severely affected areas in other countries, drones are also being used to transport both medical equipment and patient samples, saving time and enhancing the speed of deliveries. In a few countries, drones powered with facial recognition are also being deployed to broadcast warnings to the citizens to not step out of their homes, and even to reprimand them for not wearing face masks. Drone technology is also being used to track large gatherings, to minimise physical contact, and to monitor narrow bylanes where police vehicles cannot enter. They are also being used to spray disinfectants in public spaces and residential colonies.
During the prevailing pandemic, the Chennai police deployed robots in the containment areas. Robots equipped with a camera could interact with the people living in the containment zones and create awareness besides sanitising the area.
Likewise, when the lockdown was announced in India to curb the COVID-19 outbreak, to aid the movement of essential services and citizens during emergencies, the Tamil Nadu government introduced the TN ePass system, which was QR code enabled. The colour-coded pass could get verified in the field by the police or other authorised officials for authenticity by using any commonly available QR code scanner app on smartphones.
To mitigate the pandemic and detect people infected with the virus, several countries are tracking smartphone data. It has become mandatory for mobile service providers in several countries to save two years of data of their subscribers, including locational data. Such data has been crucial in analysing the travel history of the person who has tested positive and to spot any person who could have come in close range of the infected person. The Indian government, on April 6, launched the Aarogya Setu app, similar to Singapore’s Trace Together, for contact tracing. The Tamil Nadu police on similar lines developed a contact tracing technology using GPS techno fencing.
Further, the reservation data from the airlines and the Railways was also used to track suspected infections. We also created an app in Tamil Nadu using geofencing technology to ensure and enforce the quarantine. Two Bangalore based companies Vijna labs and Pixxon Ai developed law enforcement tools that aided in quarantine enforcement and tracing. Delhi acquired the Automated Facial Recognition System, which they used to monitor crowds from Innefu Labs.
And China, by joining hands with Alibaba and Tencent, has developed a colour-coding system which tracks millions of people daily. Further, in China, facial recognition-powered CCTV cameras have been installed at almost every quarantine centre. Several other police agencies have developed dashboards using Big Data, Face recognition, and infrared temperature detection techniques.
The pandemic has uncovered the vulnerability of the human species to the coronavirus. The only redemption, thanks to technological evolution, is that police are better equipped than ever to respond to the pandemic. Authorities, by deploying technology, have been able to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic to a substantial extent. The 2011 Hollywood film Contagion hauntingly foretold the consequences of the virus outbreak, which we are witnessing today. Still, the fallout which we are glimpsing today is much less severe than what got depicted in the movie because of the availability and use of technologies that are proving to be significant in combating the coronavirus.
— The author is Director, Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC)