The surveillance trap

The unabated use of Facial Recognition System without any legal framework is leading to a ‘function creep’, say experts, citing the example of Delhi Police

India has seen a rapid deployment of Facial Recognition Systems (FRS) in recent years, both by the Centre and State governments, without putting in place any law to regulate their use. The growing unabated use of this potentially invasive technology without any safeguards, legal experts say, poses a huge threat to the fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of speech and expression of the citizens.

Currently, 18 FRSs are in active utilisation by the Centre and State governments for the purpose of surveillance, security and authentication of identity, and 49 more systems are in the process of being installed by different government agencies. The national capital has three FRSs in active utilisation by Delhi Police (security/surveillance), New Delhi Airport (authentication of identity), and Indian Institute of Technology (authentication of identity). Three more FRSs are in the process of being installed.

Only Telangana is ahead of Delhi at present with four facial recognition systems in active utilisation for surveillance and authentication of identity, according to data published by Project Panoptic, which tracks deployment and implementation of such systems across India. Delhi Police was the first law enforcement agency in the country to start using the technology in 2018. It is important to note that the facial recognition technology is being used in Delhi without any legal framework in place to regulate it, said Anushka Jain, associate counsel (surveillance and transparency) at Internet Freedom Foundation.

HC order

In response to an RTI query filed by Project Panoptic over the legality of the use of FRSs, Delhi Police, on February 20, 2020, replied that it was authorised by the Delhi High Court in terms of the decision in the case of ‘Sadhan Haldar vs NCT of Delhi’.

In that particular case, the High Court had authorised the Delhi police to obtain facial recognition technology for the purpose of tracking and reuniting missing children. On the question of any guidelines or standard operating procedure guiding the use of facial recognition technology, Delhi Police replied, “FRS may be used in investigation in the interest of safety and security of general public.” Ms.

Jain pointed out that Delhi Police was now using the FRS, which was meant for tracking missing children, for wider security and surveillance and investigation purpose. There is a “function creep” happening with Delhi Police gradually using the technology beyond its intended purpose, said Ms. Jain, giving examples of use of FRS to identify accused who took part in the farmers’ tractor rally violence in January this year.

Earlier, Delhi Police took the help of Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) to compare the details of people involved in the violence during the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act at Jamia Millia Islamia in 2019 with a data bank of more than 2 lakh “antisocial elements”. The police have also been using facial recognition software to track down the suspects involved in the north-east Delhi riots that left 53 people dead.

Bring accountability

Surveillance of any kind happens in secret and the people generally don’t know that they are being watched, Ms. Jain said, adding that “there is a very obvious power dynamic and power imbalance which happen when surveillance takes place”.

“Citizens are powerless because they don’t know what is happening in the name of surveillance. The public needs to know what the government is doing in order to hold them accountable,” Ms. Jain said.

She said the idea behind Project Panoptic is to bring light to the fact that these technology systems are being used without any laws in place to regulate them.

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