India is ramping up the use of facial recognition to track down individuals without any laws to keep track of how this technology is being used

India is ramping up the use of facial recognition to track down individuals without any laws to keep track of how this technology is being used
Representative image: India is ramping up the use of facial recognition to track down individualsUnsplash
  • Tracking down protestors who were present at the Red Fort on January 26 is only the most recent example of how facial recognition technology is being used by law enforcement in India.
  • A civil liberties organisation, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a discussion with experts and stakeholders to ascertain how this may violate the rights of millions of Indians.
  • Concerns around the use of facial recognition aren’t just centered in India, but are a global worry as its use becomes more widespread.
The Indian government is using facial recognition technology to track down the protestors who were present at the Red Fort during the ruckus on January 26. But, that’s only the most recent example of how the use of facial recognition is accelerating in India as the law plays catch up.

In the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), for instance, the police are using an AI-based facial recognition system to alert the police whenever a woman is in distress. However, there is no clarity on who will access the surveillance footage from these ‘smart cameras’ and where that data will be stored.

The same software, called Trinetra, was also used by the UP police to run surveillance on anti-CAA protestors following which more than 1,100 arrests were made.

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In another example, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) used facial recognition to match admit card photos on record to match students logging in to give their board exams — an exercise that was carried out without any additional consent from the students of their parents.

The IFF estimates that there are currently 42 ongoing facial recognition projects in India, front he Automated Multimodal Biometric Identification System (AMBIS) in Maharashtra to FaceTagr in Tamil Nadu. Of these, at least 19 are being developed and deployed by state-level police departments and the NCRB for the specific purpose of security and surveillance.


Regardless of where one stands on the farmers’ protests, the use of such technology has much wider implications since it falls into a vague and undefined category with no specific laws to address how this technology is being used and on whom.

The use of facial recognition technology goes beyond the farmers’ protests
The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), as a part of the Project Panoptic, has written to the government asking them to address the ongoing concerns around the use of facial recognition technology and to call stakeholders and privacy experts for consultation on how this affects individual fundamental rights.

According to the non-government organisation (NGO), the deployment of facial recognition is in violation of the right to privacy set out by the Supreme Court in 2017.

“Nowhere are these risks more evident than the large scale of deployment of facial recognition technology that is causing certain harm by restricting the liberty and autonomy of millions of Indians,” said the IFF in its letter to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

What is facial recognition technology?
Facial recognition can be a lot of things. It’s an umbrella term used to describe a suite of applications that perform a specific task using a human face to verify or identify an individual.

It can also be scaled up to identify and categorise people based on physical features like race, ethnicity, gender, age or disability status.

And, in recent years, it has been increasingly used in the realm of law enforcement without adequate checks and balances in place.

“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 Anushka Jain, Associate Counsel (Transparency & Right to Information) at IFF told Business Insider in an earlier interview.

Creation of a national database for facial recognition
In India, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) which invites bids for the creation of a National Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS). It has an estimated budget of ₹308 crore to create a national database of photographs.

According to the proposal, this database is purported to be used to swiftly identify criminals by gathering existing data from various other databases.

In the US, there was nationwide outrage when Amazon decided to outsource the use of its facial recognition software, Rekognition, to the police. “Just because technology could be misused doesn’t mean we should ban it and condemn it,” Andy Jassy, set to step in as Jeff Bezos replacement as CEO of the company, told Recode during a 2019 interview.

Misuse of facial recognition technology is a global concern
Concerns around the misuse of facial recognition technology are not specific to India. The American Civil Liberties Union has also expressed its apprehension that using facial recognition can be used “in a passive way that doesn’t require the knowledge, consent, or participation of the subject.”

Other civil society organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Algorithmic Justice League and Amnesty International have also called for a ban on the use of this technology.

The question isn’t only of consent but also that facial recognition is known to deliver biased results.

“The impact on marginalised communities gains special importance for us locally due to the wide inequality and diversity present in our society,” said the IFF’s letter.

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