We wrote to the Election Commissioner of India on the use of Facial Recognition Technology for voter verification in Karnataka

We asked them to immediately cease the use in light of the potential harms it may cause.

13 May, 2023
2 min read

tl;dr

On May 08, 2023, Moneycontrol reported that the Election Commission of India (“ECI”) was planning to pilot the introduction of facial recognition technology (“FRT”) in the polling process by using it in one polling booth in the recent Karnataka state assembly election. We wrote to the Chief Election Commissioner of India (“CEC”) and the Chief Electoral Officer, Karnataka (“CEO, Karnataka”), highlighting our concerns surrounding FRT, and its potentially adverse effects on enfranchisement if implemented on a grand scale within the electoral process. We have also filed two right to information applications (“RTI applications”) to obtain more information about the pilot project.

Why you should care?

India is currently witnessing a rapid proliferation in the use of FRT (view our #ProjectPanoptic tracker here). In the electoral process, however, the incorporation of FRT is especially concerning, since the unchecked collection of voter data can be used to influence voter behaviour undemocratically. FRT also suffers from low accuracy rates and biases across its landscape, opening up possibilities of large-scale disenfranchisement and marginalisation if incorporated permanently in polling processes. The fundamental right to vote - and the right to free and fair elections - is thus endangered by such a pilot, and the project itself needs to be addressed.

Our letter to the CEC and CEO, Karnataka

The aforementioned news report suggests that the system was piloted at one polling station in Bengaluru during the election on May 10, 2023. The article later states that soon after the original report, the ECI clarified that they had taken the project for ‘deliberation’, and not finalised for piloting. As a part of the project, voters at the polling booth chosen for the pilot will need to download a mobile application (‘Chunavana’) and upload personal information, like their Elector’s Photo Identity Card (EPIC) number and mobile number, along with a picture of themselves. At the polling booth, the voter will then undergo facial recognition scanning for verification, passing which they will be cleared to cast their vote.

Like the article, we note the similarity of the system to the Central Government’s DigiYatra Scheme. IFF has previously stated our concerns with the use of widespread facial recognition systems like DigiYatra, including India’s lack of a data protection legal framework. Our letter highlighted the intrusion to individual privacy that is promulgated by unrestricted digital surveillance, especially in the context of the right to privacy established by the Supreme Court in the 2017 judgement of Puttaswamy vs. Union of India.

We also emphasised the likelihood of the widespread incorporation of FRT in voting in India causing large scale disenfranchisement, especially for marginalised sections of the population. It is our recommendation that the ECI cease the implementation of FRT in elections, and conduct a privacy-impact assessment on the implementation of any new technology within the polling process.

IFF has also filed two RTI applications with the ECI on this pilot project, on May 08 and May 10, 2023. The former application requests information on the data collection and privacy policies of the mobile app and FRT system, while the latter requests the ECI to make the pilot project report available to us. As of May 11, 2023, the application requesting the report of the pilot has been transferred to the CEO, Karnataka.

This post has been authored by Policy Intern Ishika Ray Chaudhuri and reviewed by the IFF Policy Team.

  1. Our letter to the CEC and CEO, Karnataka, dated May 10, 2023. (link)
  2. Our RTI application to the ECI, with reference no. 23412, dated May 08, 2023. (link)
  3. Our RTI application to the ECI, with reference no. 23444, dated May 10, 2023. (link)

Subscribe to our newsletter, and don't miss out on our latest updates.

Similar Posts

1
Your personal data, their political campaign? Beneficiary politics and the lack of law

As the 2024 elections inch closer, we look into how political parties can access personal data of welfare scheme beneficiaries and other potential voters through indirect and often illicit means, to create voter profiles for targeted campaigning, and what the law has to say about it.

6 min read

2
Press Release: Civil society organisations express urgent concerns over the integrity of the 2024 general elections to the Lok Sabha

11 civil society organisations wrote to the ECI, highlighting the role of technology in affecting electoral outcomes. The letter includes an urgent appeal to the ECI to uphold the integrity of the upcoming elections and hold political actors and digital platforms accountable to the voters. 

2 min read

3
IFF Explains: How a vulnerability in a government cloud service could have exposed the sensitive personal data of 2,50,000 Indian citizens

In January 2022, we informed CERT-In about a vulnerability in S3WaaS, a platform developed for hosting government websites, which could expose sensitive personal data of 2,50,000 Indians. The security researcher who identified the vulnerability confirmed its resolution in March 2024.

5 min read

Donate to IFF

Help IFF scale up by making a donation for digital rights. Really, when it comes to free speech online, digital privacy, net neutrality and innovation — we got your back!