India’s parliament has cleared a contentious bill that grants sweeping powers to police to collect biometric and physical measurements of people who have been convicted, arrested or detained.
The Criminal Procedure Identification Bill (CPI) seeks to update a British-era law to enable police to collect samples of a person’s biometric details, such as fingerprints and iris scans, if they have been arrested, detained or placed under preventive detention on charges that attract a jail term of seven years or more.
Opposition political parties have branded the proposed law as draconian and raised concerns about data breaches and violation of privacy.
Lawmakers also fear adverse implications for human rights, and have called for the bill to be referred to a parliamentary standing committee or a select committee for detailed deliberations.
'Dark and dangerous'
“If this bill becomes law, India will enter a dark and dangerous phase, a full-fledged police state – and any irksome opposition will simply be brutalised into silence with laws such as this one,” said Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra.
“With the advance in technology, the state has ever greater powers of surveillance over citizens.”
Data protection law in India is facing many problems and resentments due the absence of a proper legislative framework.
The Personal Data Protection Bill has been stuck in parliament since 2018 and is waiting to be introduced.
Many feel that the proposed law is similar to giving the government a dangerous snooping weapon to exercise against dissidents.
“Biometric data is immutable and an individual cannot change it,” said Shankar Narayan, an attorney working at the intersection of technology and civil rights.
“Once it is disseminated or leaked within the government or beyond, the individual may suffer long-term consequences not just from the government, but from other actors who have obtained this sensitive and valuable data.”
The draft law also empowers the National Crime Records Bureau to collect, store and preserve these records for 75 years and share it with other agencies.
Resistance or refusal to allow the collection of data is an offence. The legislation will be forwarded to the president for approval before it becomes law.
“We have brought this law to ensure speedy justice and curb long trials.
This has an economic cost as well – for the government as well as sometimes those who have been accused and may come from poorer sections,’’ said Home Minister Amit Shah, assuring MPs that political activists will not be targeted.
“No provision of this bill permits performing narco analysis, polygraph test and brain mapping of any prisoner,” he added.
Several countries including the US and the UK, collect biometric identifiers – facial features, fingerprints or retina scans – of people who are arrested or convicted.
But unlike the UK and US, India does not have robust systems to investigate alleged police misconduct.
Many are apprehensive that the newbBill is more intrusive, has fewer checks and balances than the one being repealed.
“The law will surely lead us to a police state. Raising voice against human rights violations will be a crime in ‘New India’,” said MP Kunwar Danish Ali.
The country’s Supreme Court has set up an independent committee to investigate accusations that the government is using Israeli spyware Pegasus to snoop on political leaders – a charge it denies.
During the protests against a contentious citizenship law in 2019, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh had said it used facial recognition technology to identify protesters who it labelled as conspirators.