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Is India ready for mass facial recognition system to combat crime?

The Narendra Modi government is preparing to install country-wide facial recognition system in an effort to tamp down crime rate.

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The Narendra Modi government is preparing to install country-wide facial recognition system in an effort to tamp down crime rate. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, this will help in “modernising the police force, information gathering, criminal identification, verification”. However, this has already triggered privacy concerns.

ThePrint asks: Is India ready for mass facial recognition system to combat crime?

India may not be 100% ready for facial recognition system, but it has to start at some point. So, why not now?

Snehesh Alex Philip

Senior Associate Editor, ThePrint

I have always supported the use of technology to combat crime even though it is true that nothing works better than the human intelligence network.

However, the bitter truth is that India is not ready for mass facial recognition system yet. The answer to the question of whether India will ever be 100 per cent ready in the future is also a no. It is nonetheless important for India to start at some point in time and nothing is better than today.

What worries me is that there is little information available on where and how the system will be deployed. The biggest concerns relate to the who and how of data collection, storage and access. There needs to be a constructive public discussion on this issue with the Modi government stating clearly its exact plan for this project.

The biggest fear is that the Indian system is not robust enough to ensure that there will be no misuse of data. So, there needs to be strong checks and balances to avert any possibility of data exploitation.

In an age when even encrypted chatting apps like WhatsApp are not secure, where is the guarantee that the huge amount of information that will be in the government’s deposit will not be misused?

Without data protection laws in place, AFRS can be the next tech challenged in SC for violating right to privacy

Debayan Roy

Principal Correspondent, ThePrint

Even though the government has said that the NCRB’s automated facial recognition system (AFRS) will not violate the privacy of Indian citizens and is only being developed to help law enforcement agencies identify criminals, missing children and bodies, a glaring concern about it violating the right to privacy remains.

The technology is also being ushered in when the data protection rules of the country have not been notified. Justice B.N. Srikrishna committee had submitted the draft law, but the law ministry is yet to bring a law that would state how data can be stored, used and protected. Facial recognition would entail collection of critical information of Indian citizens, which if not safeguarded could be misused. And another Pegasus breach would not be far away.

The AFRS is nothing but a mass surveillance system that will gather data in public places without a warrant or a stated reason. In the absence of a data protection law, this technology might lead to social policing and restrictions.

San Francisco authorities have recently banned the use of facial recognition technology by city personnel or law enforcement agencies. It is the first US state to do so.

Also, according to reports, the technology has been inaccurate in identifying dark-skinned women, those from ethnic minorities and transgender people.

In a landmark ruling in 2017, on Aadhaar, the Supreme Court stated that individual privacy is a fundamental right. Even in this case, if laws and rules are not in place, the AFRS could be the next one to be challenged in the top court for violating privacy and right to life.

Technologically speaking, India is ready for facial recognition. Legally speaking, India can’t handle its powers

Regina Mihindakulusuriya

Senior Correspondent, ThePrint

Technologically speaking, India is ready to adopt facial recognition systems. Legally speaking, India is not ready to handle the potent powers of surveillance technology. Mass adoption of surveillance technology in India is a disaster waiting to happen.

The question is, do we really want such powerful technology in the hands of the state? Especially after Indians were illegally spied upon using Israeli software Pegasus, which is apparently sold only to government agencies. So, large scale adoption of facial recognition sounds like a bad idea because India doesn’t have a privacy and data protection law.

If my right to privacy or if my personal data (like my face or my iris) is by any chance violated or abused, there is no law to protect me.

Surveillance technology with no law for checks and balances is going to be an even bigger assault on democracy. Who knows, one day the police could decide peaceful protests are a crime and if some CCTV camera picks up my face and logs me at the protest, then I am going to be labelled a criminal.

So, it doesn’t matter if India is technologically ready to use surveillance tech to fight crime, it’s still a bad idea and shouldn’t happen until a privacy law comes through.

Surveillance aside, we need a much deeper debate on why the average Indian despises the police so much

Srijan Shukla

Journalist, ThePrint

The idea of developing a facial recognition system raises more questions than it answers.

The fact that a democratic government has the technology to monitor a citizen 24×7 is a harrowing idea. What’s next, a “sanskari” social credit system? India has genuinely poor privacy regulations and the idea that the government would use CCTV footage only “after a crime has been committed” hardly convinces the sceptics.

The Modi government wants to use the facial recognition system for “identifying criminals, missing children /persons, unidentified dead bodies and unknown traced children/persons all over the country”.

This decision seems like a mistake that the Indian state has made over and over again in the last two decades. The problem with Indian police services isn’t about them not having the capability to identify criminals, but about addressing their unresolved issues of capacity, enforcement, organisational culture, and skewed orientation.

This facial recognition system won’t solve the problem of India’s appalling law and order situation.

Milan Vaishnav has rightly argued in the past that police in India are still governed by the colonial notion of “maintaining law and order”, while police in the rest of the world aim to make “cities safer for their citizens”.

It is worthwhile to pay heed to Yamini Aiyar when she argues that over the last two decades all Indian policies — both “rights legislations” and “new technologies” — have only tried to make the bureaucracy more efficient. This hasn’t worked. We need a much deeper debate on why the average Indian despises the Indian police so much.

China and US are already using facial recognition tech and it is helping them combat crime

Samyak Pandey

Journalist, ThePrint

In the digital era, the possibility of leaving no digital footprint is almost next to zero. The recent controversy over Cambridge Analytica, Edward Snowden’s leaks and India’s own UIDAI or Aadhaar have made it pretty clear that the struggle for data protection and privacy laws have not yielded much. The need of the hour is a transparent and easily accessible data framework, which lets any citizen review and see what their data is being used for. We have already signed up to give much of our information to the government, owing to the social contract between the citizen and the state, but we need to know where it is going.

On the brighter side, many developed countries such as the United States and China have already implemented this technology and it is helping them combat crime in a much more efficient way. The facial recognition technology could help protect human and child trafficking victims.

India already has a facial recognition system at Hyderabad airport called Digi Yatra. It is meant to facilitate paperless travel and a smooth security check at the airport.

Whether we like it or not, facial recognition systems will be implemented at the national level. We must instead focus on data protection laws that safeguard us.

By Taran Deol, journalist at ThePrint

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    • Beg to differ. The usefulness or effectiveness depends on the government’s willingness to use any technology for effective governance and good of the people. If an incumbent head of government wants to misuse a technology none can stop. The individuals manning a system are as important as the system itself for its effectiveness.

  1. To put it more simply. Fish out CCTV footage of the mobike riding cop who was assaulted by a lawyer outside Saket Court. More disturbingly, of the group of lawyers who swarmed over DCP Monika Bhardwaj as she ran to restrain them. Will facial recognition technology be used to identify each one of them, to be followed by the action that the law mandates be taken against someone assaulting a public servant who is discharging her duties ?

  2. It is a question of trust, Iqbal. In principle, one has no objection to use of this technology by the state, to combat serious crime and especially terrorism. However, when all coercive arms are seen to be working in a completely partisan manner, citizens turn sceptical, even cynical. So far, vast agglomeration of power by the state has not translated into visibly better governance.

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