In a controversial move, the Telangana State Election Commission (TSEC) on Saturday announced that it will be using facial recognition application as a tool to eliminate bogus voters on pilot basis during the municipal polls.
According to TSEC, the facial recognition application would be used in 10 polling stations of Kompally municipality, which falls under Medchal-Malkajgiri district. Explaining the process they said that an additional polling officer would be provided with a phone equipped with the facial recognition application. The officer first verifies the identity proof of the voter and then takes a photograph and uploads to the server of facial recognition application which would validate the voter.
State election commissioner, M Ashok Kumar said in a statement said that though they conducted scrutiny manually, “Impersonation is still noticed during the polls, in spite of the use of photo electoral rolls, of photo ID card for each voter and, above all, having the polling agents of different candidates present in the polling station.”
The TSEC said that since the polling officer has multiple duties, they could fail at not looking at the photo of the in the ID card and compare with the photo in the electoral rolls. Considering this, they would be using the facial recognition application of the Telangana State Technology Services (TSTS) which is used to validate the identity of pensioners.
TSEC clarified that the tool is an additional measure besides the regular validation done by the polling officers.
Assuring the voters of their privacy, TSEC said, “The photographs taken are not stored or used for any other purpose. They will be erased from the memories of the mobile phone used in the polling station and also the server of the TSTS.”
However, Hyderabad-based, anti-surveillance activist, Srinivas Kodali, expressed apprehensions about facial recognition used during the elections. “It is a profiling of voters. How could it be used for elections? Facial recognition is a surveillance tool,” he said.
Srinivas questioned the TSEC, asking which law would the government be using facial recognition. “Did they amend the Representation of Peoples Act? Even if it is used on a pilot basis. The trials should be conducted in a closed environment, not in real elections.”
While the TSEC claimed that the facial recognition would weed out the bogus votes significantly, by stating, “The process of identification and authentication of the voter by applying the latest technologies of artificial intelligence, deep learning etc., completely driven by the system with full digital trail can help reduce impersonation cases significantly.”
Srinivas asked, “What is the accuracy level of the software? This should be answered by the technology developers behind the application.”
He stated that using the facial recognition tool would result in mass deletion of voters, a problem which the state witnessed during the Assembly elections in 2018 after hundreds of voters were deleted after Aadhaar was linked to voter ID. However, the TSEC clarified that a negative response by the application would not be grounds to deny voting rights to any voter and existing identification system would scrutinize the voter.
TSEC maintained that the entire transmission process is properly encrypted and the IDs are anonymized. “It is a type of information sanitization whose intent is privacy protection. It is the process of either encrypting or removing personally identifiable information from data sets so that the people whom the data describe remain anonymous. The input files (encrypted live photo data) are deleted immediately after the purpose is fulfilled.”
For the exercise, authorities are providing 10 new 4G Android smartphones.
Elections for 120 municipalities and 10 municipal corporations will be held in Telangana on January 22.