Ask Delhi Police to halt use of facial recognition tech to identify demonstrators, point to unlawful use of drones
Digital rights activists are up in arms over what they term as illegal acts of mass surveillance by law enforcement authorities in Delhi during the recent protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and proposed National Register of Citizens.
In letters to the home ministry and Delhi Police commissioner on Sunday, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) has asked Delhi Police to cease the use of facial recognition technology and video surveillance to identify protesters rallying against the legislation.
“Due to the glaring illegality and the immense injury caused to the fundamental right of privacy, risks of discrimination and subsequent coercive action, we demand an urgent halt to the Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) along with consequential demands seeking transparency and accountability on its use,” wrote Apar Gupta, executive director at IFF, a digital rights body. A copy of the letter has been posted on the IFF website.
Gupta also claimed that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation’s guidelines on use of drones appear to have been flouted by Delhi Police for the purpose of surveillance.
A senior Delhi Police officer told ET on the condition of anonymity that the department “had purchased the facial recognition software at the direction of the Delhi High Court to trace missing children”.
The officer said the software “was used during the prime minister’s recent rally in Delhi for security reasons” and confirmed that “the police used it during anti-CAA protests to identity miscreants”.
The officer, however, insisted the force was “not violating privacy”.
There was no response from Delhi Police and home ministry to emailed queries sent by ET till press time Monday.
Legal experts are of the view that video recording through drones is not a breach of privacy as public spaces are being filmed, similar to what is done with CCTV cameras.
“However, the use of facial recognition tech to profile citizens could be illegal, as it does not pass the test laid out by the Supreme Court’s privacy judgment,” said Nikhil Narendran, partner at law firm Trilegal.
WHAT DOES SC SAY ON GOVT SURVEILLANCE?
Any legislation permitting surveillance has to be constitutionally valid and must comply with three parameters: govt needs to declare a specific objective for collecting private data, which authority is ordering it, what procedure will be followed
Many Protests Under Watch, Say Activists
“The proposed privacy (personal data protection) Bill gives wide powers to the government to use such intrusive technologies, which could be challenged before a court,” said Nikhil Narendran of Trilegal.
The proposed Bill allows the Centre to exempt any government department from the obligations of the law.
Thousands of Indians have been protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act as well as the proposed citizenship registry, terming the measures an attack on the country’s secular Constitution and against Muslims.
So far, the government has deployed thousands of police personnel, shut down mobile internet services across many cities and intermittently imposed a law forbidding large gatherings.
Many such protests in Delhi, Pune, Chennai, as well as cities in Uttar Pradesh, have reportedly been under surveillance through drones and video cameras, according to rights activists. It is not yet clear how the police plans to use the footage.
Several social media accounts being used to rally protesters are advising participants to use masks or makeup to avoid being mapped by facial recognition systems.
Raman Jit Singh Chima, a lawyer and Asia policy director at Access Now, said the government’s use of facial recognition software, drones and social media is not targeted surveillance but mass surveillance, adding that “if surveillance has to happen, it has to happen under a legal framework”.
For instance, the use of drones by the Tamil Nadu police department to monitor public rallies was approved by the Madras High Court in a ruling on December 22.
“But it is not clear who has approved the use of drones by Delhi Police,” Chima said. Access Now is an international non-profit that defends the digital rights of users at risk.
STARTUP SUPPLYING SOFTWARE
Innefu Labs, a startup funded by IndiaNivesh Venture Capital Fund, sells facial recognition software to Delhi Police. It states on its website that its products combine internal records, reports from multiple agencies, video and image feeds and social media for tracking and identifying criminals.
Emails to Innefu seeking comments did not elicit a response, but the company confirmed on Twitter that its software was being used by Delhi Police.
India is among the world’s top three surveillance states, according to a recent study released by UK-based research firm Comparitech. It only fared better than China and Russia.
The increase in the use of surveillance technology by the government combined with mandatory data localisation and wide exemptions has worried many privacy lawyers.
“We will await an official response from the authorities. Till then, we will apply pressure through public advocacy and awareness before seeking a judicial response. We will also seek information of the surveillance technology through right to information (RTI),” said IFF’s Gupta.