Experts say that the use of the technology in law enforcement, elections, education and other domains affect the constitutional rights of citizens.

Telangana and Hyderabad police use Facial Recognition Technology for surveillanceFacial Data collection by the Hyderabad police
news Technology Saturday, February 20, 2021 - 14:27

Did you know that Telangana has the largest number of Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) projects being rolled out across the country? At the moment there are about six FRT projects ongoing in the state. Four are already active, according to Project Panoptic, an initiative by the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) which is working on ensuring liberties granted by the Indian constitution in the digital age.

Through Project Panoptic, IFF hopes to keep track of all FRT projects being implemented by government authorities across India. They aim to bring transparency and accountability among government stakeholders using FRT for governance.

Among the six FRT projects in Telangana, the FRT used by Hyderabad police and Telangana State Road Transport Authority store the facial data permanently. Other projects by the Telangana police, Telangana State Election commission, Telangana State Council of Higher Education (TSCHE) and Hyderabad Airport (Digi Yatra), store the data temporarily.

For both the Telangana and Hyderabad police, the use of FRT is for surveillance.

Read: Hyderabad police is collecting citizen data to ‘curb crime’, but is it legal?

Anushka Jain, an associate Counsel for Transparency & Right to Information with IFF, who leads Project Panoptic, says that the technology is not accurate and its use in law enforcement, elections, education and other domains affect the constitutional rights of citizens. Anushka raises concerns over the present lack of oversight and accountability in the way the technology is being rolled out and used. She also warns that with no oversight on its use, it could have a chilling effect on citizens' right to protest.

"We felt there was a need to keep track of the ongoing FRT projects with media reports about the use of the technology during the anti-CAA-NRC (Citizenship Amendment Act- National Registry of Citizens) protests. FRT was also used to identify those who took part in the January 26 protests,” said Anushka, “Due to these reports, we wanted to check how many FRT projects are ongoing. There is no accountability around them which is why we thought there was the need for a tracker and put the details on a platform. So we can call for better transparency and accountability from governments at the state and Centre,” she adds.

 

If you are interested in knowing more about facial recognition projects in India do visit #ProjectPanoptic. It maps the growth of this surveillance technology across India which has little legal backing or safeguards. https://t.co/j2mvra6TI6 pic.twitter.com/2ac8jtt0V3

— Apar (@apar1984) February 17, 2021

Panoptic Project was launched on November 26, 2020. In February 2021, the IFF wrote to the parliamentary standing committee on Information Technology pointing out flaws of the technology. "The use of this harmful technology is being done secretively throughout the country, with most citizens unaware that they are under the gaze of a camera equipped with the technology." IFF wrote to the committee, also pointing out that the adoption of the technology had risen exponentially in the past two years.

IFF wrote that India is at the cusp of launching the world’s largest facial recognition technology system through the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB under the Ministry of Home Affairs. IFF was referring to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRBs) Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS).

The AFRS will use Artificial Intelligence to identify criminals, missing people and unidentified dead bodies. The tech according to NCRB can also be used for criminal identification. It will be linked to multiple databases such as the NCRB-managed Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS), passport databases, the ‘Khoya Paya’ (lost and found) portal of the Woman and Child Welfare Department, Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) and any other image database available with police and other entities. The FRT database used by the Hyderabad police is also linked to the CCTNS.

Anushka says it is an assumption that the FRT technology will help the police catch criminals. “There is no 100% accurate FRT that has been developed anywhere in the world. So the assumption that this technology is going to help police catch criminals is not true. As the tech itself isn't accurate, it can misidentify and fail,” she says. The danger lies in an innocent person getting harassed and brought into custody.  “Waiting for such an instance to happen and then take action to rectify this is problematic, because what can we do once the problem has already risen? It will be too late, prevention is better than cure,” she adds.

The counsel points fingers at how the FRT being used by thecto identify voters in the municipal elections were only 78 % accurate, based on their reply to an RTI application. The state has also no plans to take any steps to improve system accuracy.

Read: Facial recognition used in Telangana booths as pilot, not all voters informed

At the moment, India has no personal data protection law, so there is no clarity on how the data is being collected, stored, processed and used. There is also no clarity from governments on the duration of storage and with whom the data is being shared, thus not offering any protection from the data being misused or breached. “The problems that arise will outweigh the pros of this technology. Even if the government wishes to upgrade the system, the assumption is that an improved AI will become more accurate. This is also problematic, due to inherent biases that creep into AI systems," she warns.

The use of technology such as FRT can have a chilling effect on citizens' right to protest. “If I disagree with the government, I will think twice before saying anything as the government could use technology to identify me at a protest and there could be retaliation. This profiling is problematic," says Anuskha pointing at how the government has clamped down on protesters, poets and comedians for criticising the government.

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