Privacy concerns: Face up to recognition issues

March 14, 2020 9:05 AM

Home minister Amit Shah talking of how the police identified over 1,900 rioters using facial recognition technology speaks volumes about how far India has come where tracking of criminals is concerned.

What is worrying is the home minister saying that driving licences, voter IDs, and other official data were being used to identify rioters.

By FE Editorial

Home minister Amit Shah talking of how the police identified over 1,900 rioters using facial recognition technology speaks volumes about how far India has come where tracking of criminals is concerned. What is worrying, however, is the home minister saying that driving licences, voter IDs, and other official data were being used to identify rioters.

Indeed, a few months ago, the police had announced that it was using Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) to screen anti-CAA protestors, and this was also used at the prime minister’s Independence Day address. There are some caveats, however, that need to be kept in mind.

The Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS) has been used by the police for a long time, and using that for facial recognition is a good thing. But, here too, there is a caveat since, while there have been big improvements in the technology, it is far from foolproof.

In which case, the police has to be using facial recognition as just one of the tools at its disposal, it cannot be seen as the final or clinching proof. Instead of relying on just video evidence to show the presence of someone in a riot, perhaps this should be supplemented with phone triangulation data?

This is all the more important given how videos can be doctored, and small video clips so easily misinterpreted. While the CCTNS was built for law enforcement agencies, if the police is going to use other databases, this could be a breach of privacy. Indeed, it will fuel the kind of fears that were expressed with respect to Aadhaar, about an overarching government freely dipping into any database.

In order not to violate privacy concerns, the government must come up with a procedure for accessing different databases, with enough safeguards to prevent fishing expeditions. As the Justice Srikrishna panel put it, India “lacks sufficient legal and procedural safeguards to protect individual civil liberties”.

While there is an anti-abuse procedure in place for phone taps even today, the review committee, as the Srikrishna panel put it, “has an unrealistic task of reviewing 15,000-18,000 interception orders in every meeting”.

The Personal Data Protection Bill tries to put in place a framework for this, with a Data Protection Authority at the helm, and companies putting in data encryption standards to prevent misuse, but the Bill says that none of this will apply to government agencies if ‘public order’, ‘security of the state’, ‘sovereignty and integrity of India’, etc, are being affected; this sweeping exemption is clearly problematic and has to be plugged. Also, if the police is to access other databases, it should make a representation to a body either set up by Parliament or appointed by the Court or so that there is no misuse of data.

Although this setup may not be perfect and may lead to problems—FISA courts in the US are known to accept 99% of requests made by the government—it will still establish a procedure, which can be improved upon later.

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