Would Facial Recognition Systems in India Violate the Privacy of Citizens?

The Union home ministry has recently shifted towards acquiring an automated facial recognition system to spot criminals, missing persons, and unidentified bodies. The move draws a technological leap in policing capabilities that enable the cops to act automated scans of CCTV visuals near a scene of the crime to generate breakthroughs.

Simultaneously, such systems also have the capacity of creating a surveillance state if it is allowed on-the-fly access to CCTV cameras that are now everywhere, public databases like social media, Aadhaar, and other commercial and personal domains of data generation involving citizens.

Taking care of these concerns, the government officials clarified last day that the NCRB’s (National Crime Records Bureau) Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) would not violate the privacy of citizens and is only being developed to assist the law enforcement agencies to spot and track criminals, missing person and children, and anonymous bodies. It will only be utilized relating persons that identified in the crime and CCTNS (Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems) database.

Even with this solution, a police officer who takes a photo of crime suspects on a mobile phone and then matches it against the government’s CCTNS database on criminals will be availed.

According to the reports, last week, NCRB had invited bids for AFRS that would even take face images from CCTV feed and then alerts if a blacklist image matched is found, but it could lead privacy concern.

“This software will be used only in respect of such persons who figure on the CCTNS database — accused persons, prisoners missing persons, unidentified found persons including children and unidentified found persons including children and unidentified dead persons — and is not going to be used on any other database,” a home ministry official stated.

In an investigation by the police just as fingerprint matching is used by matching fingerprint found at the crime scene with the fingerprint database. The AFRS will then add further information layer to the investigation by enabling matching digital photos or video footage of a suspect or missing person, with the photo database of CCTNS. This is already done manually, the home ministry official added. Currently, police undertake the manual search for matching photographs on CCTNS database. But an electronic search will be possible, as likely as this tool gets implemented.

In terms of unidentified person case, there are 7.71 lakh cases of missing persons in the CCTNS database presently, of those includes 98,000 children.

To deploy automated facial recognition systems, China has taken significant strides where facial recognition technology is now an indispensable component to watching citizens with a similar network of security cameras, high-speed broadband, and supercomputing capabilities on the backend to process live visuals.