Chennai police’s use of facial recognition technology on commuter draws flak

Netizens called out the police for not having sought the individual’s consent before clicking his picture and for not clarifying the intent, despite his having questioned it.
Representative image of police using facial recognition technology
Representative image of police using facial recognition technology
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Chennai police received flak for tweeting “nothing to worry” in reply to a commuter who raised concerns over the police using a facial recognition app on him in the city’s Thillai Ganga Nagar. On Thursday, December 8, Siddharth took to Twitter to question the police. He tweeted, “GRIEVANCE. Weird thing happened yesterday when I was returning home, near Thillai Ganga Nagar subway. A couple of cops stopped me, took a pic of my face and simply let me go. When asked why, he simply ignored. What is this new procedure?!”

To this, the Greater Chennai Police responded, “Facial recognition system is being used during night hours to verify the persons moving around at night hours. This system is very useful in identifying the criminals instantaneously. Nothing to worry.”

Citizens raised concerns of privacy over the use of the facial recognition software (FRS). Srikanth L, a public interest technologist, told TNM, “There is no transparency regarding the facial recognition technology (FRT), including its baseline dataset, comparison algorithm, and whether it is logging all captures into a separate suspects database. They could also be repurposed.” Netizens also called out the police for not having sought the individual’s consent before clicking his picture and for not clarifying the intent, despite him questioning it.

Project Panoptic, an initiative by the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) that works to ensure liberties granted by the Indian constitution in the digital age, tweeted that the use of FRT violates the decision of the Supreme Court (SC) in the Aadhaar judgment. “We are extremely worried that this is how the Chennai Police is using facial recognition technology. Such use casts a presumption of criminality on the entire population and violates not just the decision of the SC in the Aadhaar judgment but also the right to privacy,” it said.

The issues that come with treating common citizens as potential criminals were also highlighted by Twitter users following Chennai police’s response. Additionally, concerns regarding the possibility of an innocent person being mistakenly matched due to technical errors were also expressed by users. A Twitter user wrote, “I can't even predict the algorithmic error in matching photos in dark and that too the costs for the people whose photos are matched by mistake.” Across India, state governments, especially Telangana, have been questioned regarding the legal legitimacy of using FRT and how long data would be stored. These protocols remain ambiguous in all such initiatives.

FRT was launched in Tamil Nadu in October 2021, for tracing and nabbing criminals by Chief Minister MK Stalin. The mobile application which is used by the police uses the software to scan through 6,00,000 photographs of people with criminal antecedents from across the state. The application is linked to the Crime and Criminal Networking System (CCNS) for ascertaining identities. It was developed specifically for use in Tamil Nadu by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), Kolkata.

Earlier this year, Tamil Nadu police used the app to identify a juvenile who had escaped an NGO-run shelter home. However, the assumption that this technology is going to help the police catch persons in conflict with law is not true, warned Anushka Jain, an associate counsel for Transparency and Right to Information with IFF. While conversing with TNM earlier, she said, “There is no 100% accurate FRT that has been developed anywhere in the world. As the tech itself isn't accurate, it can misidentify and fail.” It can lead to the harassment of innocent persons and rectifying it after the problem has already risen is problematic, she cautioned. “It will be too late, prevention is better than cure,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Telangana police have been using FRT for profiling criminals since 2018.  A 2021 IFF study found that the state has the largest number of FRT projects in India. TNM had earlier reported about the Hyderabad police’s Operation Chabutra, which involved controversial and dangerous policing practices such as collecting fingerprints and photographs of people randomly. The data so collected was stored both temporarily and permanently, under different surveillance projects in the state. In February 2021, Amnesty International had launched a campaign against the use of FRT in Telangana, following which, a petition was filed in 2022 citing privacy concerns by a social activist, but to no avail.

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