Introduction to Facial Recognition Projects in India

In the first of a three part series, we map major facial recognition projects being implemented by the Central and State Governments and broadly classify them according to intended purpose.

17 February, 2020
4 min read


IFF has been tracking various facial recognition technology (FRT) projects in different stages of development all over India. In the first part of this three part series on FRT, we have mapped major FRT projects in different states and broadly classified them into two categories according to intended purpose: Security/Surveillance and Authentication of Identity.

The Government needs to calm down!

In 2015, Jacky Alcine was surprised to find an auto-generated album in his Google Photos folder which contained a photo of his African-American friends categorized as “Gorillas.” This categorization had been done by the facial recognition software that Google Photos used to automatically sort any photos uploaded by the user. After Jacky posted this image on Twitter, the resultant outrage was immediate and understandable and Google promptly removed the offending categorization.

In order to understand why this error occurred and why many civil liberties organizations are calling for a ban or a moratorium on FRT, we need to understand how machine learning occurs and how bias in the samples used will lead to bias in the recognition done by the software. However, even before understanding these important questions and trying to come up with workable solutions and standards, the Central Government and different State Governments have already started deploying FRT for two major purposes: Security/Surveillance and Authentication of Identity.

Facial Recognition for Security/Surveillance

One of the biggest causes of alarm currently is the Request For Proposals (RFP) issued by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The RFP invites bids for the creation of a National Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) which would be used to create a national database of photographs which would help in swiftly identifying criminals by gathering existing data from various other databases like Passport, CCTNS , ICJS and Prisons, WCD Ministry's KhoyaPaya, NAFIS or any other image database available with police/other entity.

While this national level project is still in nascent stages, police departments of various states are already in possession of FRT developed by public and/or private developers such as:

  1. TSCOP + CCTNS in Telangana
  2. Punjab Artificial Intelligence System (PAIS) in Punjab
  3. Trinetra in Uttar Pradesh
  4. Police Artificial Intelligence System in Uttarakhand
  5. AFRS in Delhi
  6. Automated Multimodal Biometric Identification System (AMBIS) in Maharashtra
  7. FaceTagr in Tamil Nadu

We have already sent a notice to the Delhi Police over their illegal use of FRT during the recent protests in Delhi (Read about it here). In Telangana as well, there have been multiple instances where police officers have been illegally asking individuals to submit their biometrics.

Simultaneously, the Ministry of Railways has also announced its own facial recognition based security/surveillance system called Internet Protocol (IP) based Video Surveillance System (VSS) to be provided by RailTel under the Nirbhaya Fund. The South Western Railway started implementing the first phase of this project, and it has stated in a press release that it has been successful in developing a suitable facial recognition system which has 100% success rate in acquisition and matching of faces.

Facial Recognition for Authentication of Identity

In a press release, the Ministry of Civil Aviation announced the Digi Yatra Programme which primarily aims to increase the ease and efficiency with which passengers at airports are processed from the moment they step into the airport till they board their flight by making the whole process paperless and using the biometrics (face) of the passenger as their boarding pass. The Government has already started rolling out Digi Yatra on a trial basis in different airports like Hyderabad (July 2018), Delhi (September 2018) and Bengaluru (December 2018).

Recently, the Telangana State Election Commission also came up with a similar idea to counter impersonation in polls. TSEC with the help of the Telangana State Technology Services tested FRT in 10 polling stations in Kompally Municipality of Medchal Malkajgiri district by using the technology to verify the identity of voters by comparing the photographs taken at the polling station with photographs of the voters in the TSEC database.

FRTs are increasingly being used by educational institutions to verify the presence of teachers and students. The Gujarat Government has introduced a FRT system with a geo-tagging feature which ensures that primary school teachers themselves are present in schools and they are not being replaced by unauthorized and unqualified “proxy” teachers. Elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, the Government Higher Secondary School in Triplicane has installed a camera which is equipped with FRT in order to mark attendance of students. Similarly, IIT Delhi also has a FRT enabled attendance app in place which is called Timble.

The most recent use of FRT for authentication of identity that we came across is proposed use of the technology by the Maharashtra Government in order to record who avails its Shiv Bhojan Scheme. Shiv Bhojan  is a scheme aimed for impoverished sections of society, wherein in select locations around Mumbai, the Government will serve thalis of food at a nominal rate of Rs.10.

Fighting Back against FRT

FRT projects are becoming dangerously popular in India with various national level projects (AFRS, DigiYatra and IP VSS) underway. However, all these projects have been implemented without any legislative framework governing their operation. Be that as it may, the most worrisome part is not just the implementation of a faulty FRT system but also the implementation of an accurate system which could become a tool of mass surveillance. These problems will be discussed in the next part of this series.

To counter this grave threat to the privacy of all Indians, IFF has taken various steps. We have sent legal notices to NCRB and Delhi Police against use of FRT without any statutory basis or procedural safeguards. We have also filed Right to Information requests in conjunction to every such instance of FRT that we have come across. We will keep you updated as and when we receive responses to our RTI requests.

(This post has been authored by Anushka Jain, a legal intern at IFF, and reviewed by IFF staffer, Devdutta.)

Important Documents

  1. IFF's notice to NCRB, NCRB's reply and IFF's rejoinder. (link)
  2. IFF’s notice to Delhi Police dated December 28, 2019. (link)

"I'll be watching you, Every breath you take and every move you make, Every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you."- Indian Govt, Circa 2020.
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