A scary proposal to use facial recognition and AI by an Indian state has experts fuming

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A scary proposal to use facial recognition and AI by an Indian state has experts fuming
Representative image.Pixabay
  • The Lucknow police are installing cameras with facial recognition technology, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), in prominent harassment hotspots.
  • The cameras will gauge whether a woman is in distress based on her facial expression and send an alert to the police.
  • Anita Gurumurthy, founding member and executive director of IT for Change, called the idea “both absurd and undemocratic.”

The Lucknow police seem to be dead serious about attempting to provide women with a sense of security, whether they want it or not. And, experts say, it is testing the fine line between safety measures and a person’s right to privacy.

Under the Uttar Pradesh government's Mission Shakti programme, Lucknow police are installing cameras equipped with facial recognition technology, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), that will gauge whether a woman is in distress based on her facial expression and send an alert to the police, even before she or anyone else can call the police for help.

A scary proposal to use facial recognition and AI by an Indian state has experts fuming
Dhruva Kant Thakur, the police commissioner of Lucknow, asserted that around 200 'hotspots' in Lucknow had been identified from where the most amount of complaints of harassment has been lodged, and the programme will be piloted by placing these special cameras in five of these locations.

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While the idea may seem well-intended at first, most experts consider this surveillance programme precarious. Sumathi Chandrashekaran, a policy lawyer, based in New Delhi, sums it up as follows. "This policy proposal is laughable and problematic in so many multiple dimensions, that it is hard to parse it into a coherent argument,” she told Business Insider.

But do Lakhnawis care?

A scary proposal to use facial recognition and AI by an Indian state has experts fuming
Representative image.BCCL


Some locals of Lucknow do not see the inherent threat in this proposal. Vasudha, a long-time Lucknow resident, is taking heart from the fact that instead of the police monitoring her moves, it will be technology doing so. "Going forward it seems that it's not something we can run away from, but proper and full information is a key. I too got scared seeing the news but after talking to my husband, I realised we use AI every day in our lives anyway and it's not that scary. We just need to know where to draw the line as an informed consumer/citizen," she said.

First up: Indian cops do not have a great track record in surveillance

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Anita Gurumurthy, founding member and executive director of IT for Change, called the idea “both absurd and undemocratic.” And she has her reasons. She cited the example of how cameras in metro trains have been instruments of voyeurism with law enforcers violating the privacy and dignity of women commuters.

A scary proposal to use facial recognition and AI by an Indian state has experts fuming
"These cameras are not likely to enable gender-responsive, victim-centric and rights-oriented policing, assuming the remote possibility that the distress captured is a real case and the response cycle agile enough."Anita Gurumurthy


Secondly, the technology is untested, unproven

“There are ethical concerns that need democratic deliberation because the AI does not discern the difference between socially meaningful ends and socially repressive and harmful ones,” Gurumurthy added.
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There are other practical problems for the cops as well. “In a situation wherein two women who are friends are having a heated conversation, an alert generated would only lead to unnecessary harassment by the police. If only certain alerts are responded to, the question that arises is who is making the decision about which alerts to respond to,” explained Anushka Jain, Associate Counsel (Transparency & Right to Information) at the Internet Freedom Foundation.

A scary proposal to use facial recognition and AI by an Indian state has experts fuming
"Misuse of this system is a very real problem that could arise wherein the women face harassment from the police itself or certain areas of the city being overpoliced."Anushka Jain


Not just that, Jain raised many pertinent questions, like:

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  1. How and where will the data be stored?
  2. Who will have access to the data and who will approve this access?
  3. Who will be accountable for the misuse of information?
  4. What if women get harassed by the police itself?
“To ensure security in high crime areas, the simple solution would be to install more police personnel there. Installation of these cameras and the subsequent constant surveillance will only lead to more harm than benefits," said Jain.

‘The proposal to use facial recognition tech in this manner is legally untenable’

Chandrasekharan contends that technology is not foolproof. ‘Has the AI algorithm been tested for failures, biases, and the numerous other issues it will likely have?” she asked, highlighting that the policy strikes at the heart of the individual right to privacy. “Any act of surveillance has to pass through hoops of tests under law before it can be deemed a legitimate exercise,” she said.

A scary proposal to use facial recognition and AI by an Indian state has experts fuming
"The presumptions underlying the deployment of the tech are fundamentally flawed: it reinforces classic stereotypes of women as victims and in need of protection, and tackles the act of sexual harassment post facto." Sumathi Chandrashekaran

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According to Chandrasekharan, if this kind of surveillance receives sanction, nothing prevents the state from invading our private spaces, like homes, more flagrantly, purportedly to "protect" us from becoming victims. “Actions like these are fundamentally opposed to democratic principles, and thus, untenable," she said.

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