Living under smart surveillance

October 16, 2022

The PSCA is about much more than traffic management and e-ticketing

Living under smart surveillance


hat does Lahore look like at 10am on a working day?

It is October 12, 2022.

At Charing Cross on The Mall, several scores of people sit under tents in the middle of the road. People in small groups chat, scroll their mobile phone screens and munch on roasted grams.

At another crossing on Wahdat Road, all forms of transportation – a bus, several cars and motorcycles, three rickshaws and as many Chingchi three-wheelers, four high-roof vans and three bicycles – making almost a 200-yard long line are caught in a crawl. One can notice the desperation of a motorcyclist trying to zigzag around and overtake those ahead of him. He is wearing a pink shirt and carrying a pink food delivery bag. Perhaps he is in a hurry to reach a customer, waiting for the food on their breakfast table.

At a traffic signal in a sleepy part of Johar Town a lone motorcyclist with two pillion passengers is waiting for the signal to go green. As soon as the signal turns green, a white car side jumps the signal and drives threateningly close to the motorcycle. The motorcyclist swerves just in time, then moves on.

“This was too close,” says Sanam Mukhtar, the official monitoring the vehicles and the pedestrian traffic at this Johar Town signal, where traffic is scarce.

“The motorcyclist was disciplined in that he waited for the green light although there was little traffic. However, he violated the traffic rule about carrying no more than one passenger on a motorcycle.”

Mukhtar is one of the 600 officials of the Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA), a Lahore-based national security project, tasked with watching over the city roads and public spaces on three computer screens in front of her.

On her left, a large video wall displays every nook and cranny of Lahore. Her other colleagues, both male and female, also watch the live streams generated by over 6,000 cameras installed on major roads and public spaces in Lahore. Their main job is to keep the traffic moving, saving time and fuel for motorists and ensuring safety by ticketing the violators.

“The first impression one forms on seeing the video wall is that Lahore’s traffic is unruly. That’s true to some extent, but people have started being more disciplined. This is mostly because of the cameras on roads, no matter whether a warden is manning a crossing or not,” says another official, who gives her first name as Veengas. 20 percent of the Authority’s employees are females. The camera-conscious driving has reduced fatal accidents by 50 percent in Lahore.

The office of the PSCA is engaged in several jobs, all related to national security.

“We are very much into regulating traffic, not only in Lahore, but also in Nankana Sahib and Kasur. However, the PSCA is more than an e-ticketing authority,” says Deputy Inspector General Kamran Khan, the chief operating officer (COO) of the PSCA.

What else is the smart, digitised policing project about?

To answer this open-ended question, the COO offers a visit to the complex.

We enter a room where PSCA officials assist the investigation officers from several police stations in tracing criminals captured in the footage.

This saves investigators’ time and, says Khan.

“The footage has also saved some innocent people from being grilled at the police stations.”

As the expansion of the camera network has stalled, the crime rate has shown a pattern. According to the police, crime incidence has increased on the outskirts of Lahore but not in areas watched over by surveillance cameras.

In 2018, the police arrested six people in the Mughalpura area after a man was found dead in an underpass. The heirs were sure that the blood was on the hand of their rivals. The investigation officer asked for camera evidence, despite having evidence that those arrested had hurled threats at the deceased. The footage, however, showed the deceased climbing the fence and taking a fatal leap. It was a suicide. The six people arrested for possible murder, walked free in no time.

The Qanoon-i-Shahadat Act has been amended to make PSCA audio and video evidence acceptable in court. As a result, according to the PSCA, they have produced over 12,000 pieces of evidence in criminal cases, increasing the conviction rate.

The data centre has facilitated law-enforcement agencies with 17,000 visual clips.

What if the crime scene is a blind alley with no PSCA camera installed?

“We’ve mapped the cameras installed on private properties. So far, we have 400,000 cameras in our mapping. The number is likely to hit 800,000 over the coming days,” says Kamran Khan. The Authority is in talks with the LDA-regulated housing societies, the DHA, the Cantonment Board and private commercial buildings to integrate their cameras with the PSCA data centre.

A communication officer working with an investigation officer says people need to understand that cameras provide clues for identifying criminals. In many cases, the cameras have helped police pre-empt criminal activity.

Last month, a family from Ichhra visited the PSCA office with sweets and garlands.

The PSCA Lost and Found Centre had helped the police find an elderly woman from the family who had been missing for 24 hours. As soon as a person is reported missing, the image of the person is broadcast to all districts of the Punjab. If the missing person has been caught on a PSCA cameras, the artificial intelligence-powered database alerts the Centre. The nearby police station is alerted to take the person in custody and inform the family. The centre has traced more than 400 missing people, mostly children, and more than 7,000 lost or stolen vehicles.

One needs strong nerves to work or stay in the Puccar centre of the PSCA.

The centre receives calls from a lot of people in distress.

“Hello, how can I help you?” I overhear a communication officer saying on the phone.

“You say a girl is being kidnapped, right? Which area and location? Your location has been passed on to the related police stations. They’re on the way. Don’t worry.”

Another information officer is recording a call about a brawl at a shwarma shop in Garhi Shahu. A majority of the calls are hoaxes and fake.

The Authority has assisted the police with vehicle-mounted cameras and tabs for better surveillance of roads. So far, 600 cameras capable of facial recognition have been installed.

To monitor surveillance and response in real-time, the PSCA has also brought all law enforcement and intelligence agencies together on a single platform. This included the Special Branch, the ISI, the MI, Rangers, the CTD, the SPU, the ANF and Rescue 1122. On the PSCA floor, representatives from each department are seated together.

Aqeel Khan, an IT professional, started his career with the PSCA. Now, he is working with a Gulf-based security agency. He says his experience with the PSCA was terrific, but the salary package was not competitive.

“Dozens of my former colleagues are now working with multinationals in Pakistan and abroad,” he says.

Kamran Khan says the salaries are better than the public sector but not on par with the private sector. This has resulted in a staff shortage. A ban on new hiring has further burdened the existing staff with extra duties. The lack of funds, staff and strict regulations have also hampered the extension plans, he says.

As the expansion of the camera network has stalled, the crime rate has shown a pattern. According to police, crime incidence has increased on the outskirts of Lahore but not in areas watched over by surveillance cameras.

Some people, however, have reservations about digital surveillance being used to prevent crimes.

Abdul Sattar, a columnist, says the money spent on digital gadgets should be spent on social welfare so that the society has better humans.

Prof Aziz, the Quaid-i-Azam University Law College principal, however, supports digital surveillance to address security concerns. However, he says, the data protection law should provide a comprehensive and robust regulatory framework to protect citizens’ data.

“We’ve got a world-class data protection system,” says Kamran Khan. He says not a single data leak has occurred at the Centre.

“This persuaded the international cricket security people to declare Pakistan a safe place for foreign cricket. This is where international security staff visit before a high-profile visit to Pakistan for a briefing on surveillance. The Centre becomes a hub of activity during law and order situations and mass cultural and religious events like Muharram processions, monsoon rains, and so on,” says Kamran Khan.

He says the digital services like Women Safety App and Pehchan App are also being run under the same roof.

Another thing on our mind, he says, besides crime detection and prevention, is reporting the places with missing manholes and broken streetlights.

“The authority also monitors social media and mainstream media and collects data on hate speech to be forwarded to relevant authorities.”

The writer is a media veteran interested in politics, consumer rights and entrepreneurship

Living under smart surveillance