Central and state governments in India have deployed facial recognition systems (FRS) in recent years without putting in place any law to regulate its use.
The growing use of this potentially invasive technology without any safeguards poses a huge threat to the fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of speech and expression of the citizens, say experts.
The southern state of Telangana has the largest number of facial recognition technology projects being rolled out across the country.
Last year, an activist - S Q Masood - was stopped in the street by the Telangana police who asked him to remove his face mask and then took his picture, giving no reason and ignoring his objections.
Masood filed a suit over the state’s use of facial recognition systems – the first such case in India.
“As a minority and as a Muslim in India in the current political scenario, I was disturbed because I didn’t know where my photograph had been stored,” said Masood.
“I don’t know which department has my photograph and how they will use or misuse my data.”
His petition in the southern state is regarded as a test case as facial recognition systems are deployed nationwide, with digital rights activists saying they infringe privacy and other basic rights.
In 2019, FRS was used to screen crowds at a political rally - a first for India - raising concerns about privacy and mass surveillance amid nationwide protests against a divisive new citizenship law.
Using this, the police tracked down the suspects involved in the north-east Delhi riots that left 53 people dead.
Several privacy advocates, like the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), believe the technology is being utilised for mass surveillance rather than for a specific purpose, with the government claiming it as a solution to fight crime.
“The use of the system for profiling and surveillance at public congregations is illegal and unconstitutional. It is an act of mass surveillance,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the IFF.
An IFF report estimates that 32 facial recognition technology systems are getting installed in India under Project Panoptic.
Fear of a surveillance state
In India, state surveillance has been a significant concern, especially in the light of the allegations in the Pegasus controversy last year. Private technology companies like Israel’s NSO have been aiding law enforcement agencies in India in ramping up risky surveillance under a thick cloak of secrecy.
On Wednesday, the government approved the contentious Criminal Procedure (Identification) Act.
The act expands the powers of the authorities to collect biometric and behavioural data of convicts, those who have been arrested and court case defendants.
It also allows the National Crime Records Bureau to store this data for up to 75 years and share it with other law enforcement agencies.
Facial recognition technology identifies the distinct features of a person’s face to create a biometric map, which an algorithm then matches to possible individuals.
The use of facial recognition technology is under scrutiny around the world. Some countries such as Belgium and Luxembourg have banned its use.
The European Union is in the process of passing one of the most comprehensive bans on facial recognition technology yet, while in the United States, several city and state-level bans and moratoria have been imposed.