The Increasing Use of Facial Recognition Technology in India

#ProjectPanoptic

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tl;dr

Under Project Panoptic, we have been tracking all ongoing use of facial recognition technology in the country. In a letter to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, we relay our concerns to them and ask them to call relevant stakeholders such as ministry officials and privacy experts to depose before them.

We wrote to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT

On November 27, 2020, we launched Project Panoptic with the aim of raising public awareness around the use of facial recognition 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.

By raising public awareness through transparency, we hoped to drive accountability for these projects and the authorities which are developing and deploying them. However, another goal which we had envisaged for Project Panoptic was to drive policy change. It is with this aim in mind that we have written to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology asking them to conduct hearings on the use of facial recognition technology by government authorities in India.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has included its scope issues related to citizens’ data security and privacy.  One of the rising concerns that affect citizen’s data security and privacy in the country today is the unregulated and illegal use of facial recognition technology by various government authorities at the State and Central level. Use of the technology has risen exponentially in the past two years, with India at the cusp of launching the world’s largest facial recognition technology system through the National Crime Records Bureau under the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The use of this technology by various governmental authorities, however, has already started. On March 11, 2020, the Ld. Minister of Home Affairs, Mr. Amit Shah, while replying to a short duration discussion on the Delhi riots in the Lok Sabha, stated that, “Police have identified 1,100 people through facial recognition technology”. As per a report titled, “Delhi Police Arrests Man Who ‘Instigated’ R-Day Tractor Rally Violence” published on India.com on February 8, 2021, facial recognition technology is also being used to identify individuals who were present during the incident and protests that occurred on Republic day at the Red Fort in New Delhi, with one person being arrested through the use of this technology.

If Facial Recognition Technology is allowed to be utilised by the government without legal authority, regulation and oversight, it would lead to the violation of fundamental rights such as the right to privacy, right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to protest peacefully.

Our recommendations

  1. Conduct hearings and summon government departments: There is a need for engagement with the Government in order to obtain clarity on this deep violation of human rights. We ask that significant Government officials - especially from the National Crime Records Bureau and other relevant government agencies and law enforcement - be invited to depose before the Committee in order to obtain transparency through official disclosure. Therefore, relevant ministry officials from all ministries who have started to develop and deploy facial recognition technology should be asked to depose before the Committee, specifically including but not limited to the, Ministry of Home Affairs (National Crime Records Bureau); Ministry of Information and Broadcasting; Ministry of Civil Aviation; Ministry of Railways; Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology; Election Commission of India.  
  2. Seek expert opinion: The Committee may also seek expert opinions from individuals and organisations who have been working on the privacy impacts of use of facial recognition technology in the country. These must squarely focus not only on the privacy impacts but also the discrimination, feasibility and exclusion caused by such facial recognition technology use by the government, which are by their very nature mass surveillance measures.

Important Documents

  1. Representation to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT on the Govt. use of Facial Recognition Technology dated February 09, 2021 (link)
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