This post has been authored by Ritwik Sharma, a graduate of Amity Law School, Delhi and a practicing Advocate. In a quick read, he brings out the threat to privacy posed by the proposed Automated Facial Recognition System.
On 28th June 2019, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) released a Request for Proposal for an Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) which is to be used by the police officers in detecting potential criminals and suspects across the country.
The AFRS has potential use in areas like modernising the police force, information gathering, and identification of criminals, suspects, missing persons and personal verification.
In 2018, the Ministry of Civil Aviation launched a facial recognition system to be used for airport entry called “DigiYatra”. The AFRS system is built on similar lines but has a much wider coverage and different purpose. States in India have taken steps to introduce Facial Recognition Systems to detect potential criminals, with Telangana launching its system in August 2018.
What is Automated Facial Recognition System and how does it work?
The Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) will be a mobile and web application which will be hosted and managed by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data centre but will be used by all police stations across the country.
The AFRS works by comparing the image of an unidentified person captured through CCTV footage to the image which has been kept at the data centre of the NCRB. This will allow the data centre to match the images and detect potential criminals and suspects.
The system has the potential to match facial images with changes in facial expressions, angle, lightening, direction, beard, hairstyle, glasses, scars, tattoos and marks.
The NCRB has proposed to integrate AFRS with multiple existing databases: these include the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS) which was introduced post Mumbai attacks in 2009 as a nationwide integrated database to criminal incidents by connecting FIR registrations, investigations and chargesheets of police stations and higher offices, the Integrated Criminal Justice System (ICJS) which is a computer network which enables judicial practitioners and agencies to electronically access and share information and Khoya Paya Portal which is a portal used to detect missing children.
State Surveillance vs. Right to Privacy
In September 2017, the Supreme Court in the historic judgment of K.S. Puttaswamy vs. Union of India declared the right to privacy as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Supreme Court asserted that the government must cautiously balance individual privacy and the legitimate concerns of the state, even if national security is at stake. The Court also asserted that any invasion of privacy must satisfy the triple test i.e. need (legitimate state concern), proportionality (least invasive manner) and legality (backed by law) to ensure that a fair and reasonable procedure is undertaken without any selective targeting and profiling.
Privacy infringement without legal sanction and through executive action would be violative of the fundamental right to privacy and would disregard the Supreme Court directive. Cyber experts are of the view that such a system could be used as a tool of government abuse and risk the privacy of the citizens and since the country lacks a data protection law, the citizens would become vulnerable to privacy abuse.
Moreover, investigating agencies in the United States like the FBI operate probably the largest facial recognition system in the world. Cyber experts and international institutions have criticised the Chinese government for using surveillance system and facial recognition to keep an eye on the Uighur community in China. However, there have been claims that this system has an accuracy of hardly 2%, which makes it unreliable and cities like London are facing calls to discontinue this system to safeguard the privacy of its citizens.
Finally, such a tracking system impinges upon human dignity by treating every person as a potential criminal or suspect. There are no clear guidelines as to where such cameras are to be placed. The cameras will put every individual under surveillance and even the innocent ones would be tracked. Such surveillance would create fear amongst the citizens which has long term implications.
A rise in the crime rate poses a daunting challenge in front of the investigating agencies and robust measures must be undertaken to counter it. However, such measures should be ably backed by law and should not impinge upon the dignity and the right to privacy of the citizens.
The Data Protection Law drafted by the Justice Srikrishna Committee should be enacted by the Parliament to give legal sanction to such surveillance. Furthermore, the AFRS should be used cautiously to prevent any violation of the fundamental right to privacy.
AFRS system has the potential to bring a paradigm shift in the criminal justice system if its use is well-intentioned and within the democratic framework which ensures right to privacy and limited state surveillance.