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Data collected by digital rights watchdog Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) through Right to Information (RTI) filings showed that authorities in India had deployed 124 facial recognition systems as of August. By last November, it was just 75, according to the IFF.
But the rapid spread of the new but unproven technology has alarmed critics and civil liberties advocates, especially since India lacks a data protection law.
“Particularly in the last two years, there has been an increase in the use of facial recognition technology (FRT). It came into the limelight more after the Delhi Police used it in protests against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act),” said Anushka Jain, Associate Policy Advisor (Surveillance and Transparency) at IFF.
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The rush to deploy such disruptive technologies without adequate protection is seen by experts as a worrying sign. In China, for example, the Communist Party uses them in airports, streets and train stations to suppress dissent and enforce what it considers good behavior. The Chinese government uses facial recognition to track the behavior of its citizens through a social credit system. Like a credit score, a person with a low social score can be penalized by restrictions on travel or internet access.
Facial recognition technology uses machine learning algorithms to extract data points from a person’s face and create a digital signature. This signature is then compared to an existing database to find possible matches. The system uses a network of cameras with computer vision (which allows computers to infer information from digital images and videos). It can identify a wanted person in a crowd and alert the police.
However, this technology is far from proven and has been found to provide misleading results in studies. These studies found that facial recognition algorithms misidentified people and, more worryingly, found that different algorithms produced significantly different results when analyzing the same photos.
These facial recognition systems are widely used in government offices in India. Police in several states use it for tracking, while the Railways Department, Telangana State Road Transport Authority and Gujarat government schools use it to verify people. Besides, several so-called smart cities like Gandhinagar are planning to use the technology for surveillance.
According to Project Panoptic, IFF’s initiative to roll out facial recognition technology in India, Maharashtra has the highest number of such systems (12), followed by Telangana (8), Gujarat (8), Andhra Pradesh (7). and Tamil Nadu (7). The central government is working on 13 such schemes. But in the absence of specific laws or frameworks, privacy experts said facial recognition could be misused or used arbitrarily.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity) released the Draft India Data Accessibility and Use Policy 2022 for public consultation in February, but the country still lacks a comprehensive data protection framework.
This is of great concern. For example, in its RTI response to the IFF, Delhi Police said in July that “all matches above 80% similarity are considered positive results, while matches below 80% similarity are considered false positives, which require further corroborating evidence.”
Privacy experts find this troubling. “While 80% may sound like high accuracy, it is considered quite low by today’s standards. It leaves a lot of room for false positives,” said Pam Dixon, founder and executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a global public interest research group. Dixon pointed out that most algorithms in the FRT field have an accuracy rate of 97 to 99%, but that is also subject to many factors such as skin tone.” “For deeper looks, accuracy drops to an unacceptable level,” she warned. Even systems with higher accuracy cutoffs have led to false positives in other countries. Several African-Americans in the U.S. have been wrongfully arrested and served time in prison in the past 1-2 years due to faulty facial recognition software, according to The New York Times.
Although several US cities, including Portland and San Francisco, have banned the use of facial recognition by police, the technology is making a comeback in law enforcement. In July, for example, New Orleans lifted a ban on using police with certain safeguards, such as requiring authorization from senior officials to investigate violent crimes. In August, The Guardian reported that the UK Home Office planned to use the FRT to track migrant offenders. “Even if it is a 100% match, there is still some room for the technology to be wrong,” said IFF’s Jain.
Big tech companies like Microsoft and Amazon have refused to sell their facial recognition software to police. Microsoft has said it won’t allow it until federal law regulates its use. Currently, there are no laws in any jurisdiction regulating the use of facial recognition. In April 2021, the European Union issued a proposal to regulate artificial intelligence and its use.
The technology behind most facial recognition systems deployed in India does not involve large tech companies. Instead, they are implemented by government agencies such as the National e-Governance Division and NEC Technologies India Pvt. Ltd. Some systems are supplied by startups such as Gurugram-based Staqu Technologies or Portugal’s Vision Box.
Public officials and police believe that facial recognition can make a significant difference. “It is very useful in detecting suspects and criminals. We are also exploring ways to use it to prevent and detect crime,” said Triveni Singh, Superintendent of Police, Cyber Crime, UP Police. But Singh acknowledged the problem of false alarms. He stressed that the technology can learn and accuracy will gradually improve. Singh further explains that facial recognition is a form of biometric data that falls under sensitive personal data. “The Information Technology Act says that if you work with sensitive personal data, you must use security measures to protect it.”
Legal experts said specific laws surrounding facial recognition are still required to ensure it is used fairly. “Specific or special laws governing the use of facial recognition are essential to enable its use and limit misuse,” said N.S. Nappinai, Supreme Court advocate and founder of Cyber Saathi.