India's facial recognition project's bidding deadline extended to Jan 2020; IFF awaiting NCRB's response on matter

The NCRB defended the facial recognition system saying that it will be used to identify missing people.

The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) had sent out a Request for Proposal (RFP) document to bidders or solution providers that could possibly implement a National Automated Facial Recognition System (NAFRS). Its intention was to share information that would help the private bidders to formulate a proposal of the said centralised system. The RFP was submitted back on 28 June 2019 and the deadline for bids was recently extended to 3 January 2020.

The primary objective of the proposed facial recognition system is to create a central database that will allow access to facial data from passports, Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS), Interoperable Criminal Justice System (ICJS), prisons, lost and found persons or even the National Automated Fingerprint Identification System (NAFIS). It further mentioned that it will allow access to “any other image database available with police/other entity.”

In the tender document, it was mentioned that the system was intended to “greatly facilitate the investigation of crime and detection of criminals and provide information for easier and faster analysis.”

A man walks past a poster simulating facial recognition software at the Security China 2018 exhibition on public safety and security in Beijing.

A man walks past a poster simulating facial recognition software at the Security China 2018 exhibition on public safety and security in Beijing.

To add to the database, photographs from “newspapers, raids, sent by people, sketches, etc.” will be used to update a criminal’s repository tagged with “sex, age, scars, tattoos, etc.” This will make future searches easier, according to the document.

It doesn’t end there. The system will have features to capture images from CCTV feeds and generate an alert whenever someone from the blacklist is matched. It will be able to pull data from “private or other public organisation’s video feeds.” Support for upload of “bulk subject images” is also a suggested feature that will again raise alarms whenever a match is detected from the database.

Legal notice by IFF

Delhi-based non-profit Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) had sent a legal notice to the NCRB in July to recall the RFP. It highlighted the problems of the features presented in the tender document and said that it was illegal and unconstitutional. The legal notice pointed out that the system violated the right to privacy of citizens that was declared as a fundamental right by the Supreme Court of India in 2017.

IFF said that the proposal violated the principle of consent since the system will have access to all the facial image databases as mentioned above including data from other sources such as newspapers and sketches. Since this data would be added without the knowledge of the individual, it becomes a serious case of the citizen’s privacy.

Citing research by the Metropolitan Police in London, the IFF stated in the legal notice that misidentification could become a serious issue. Coming from research by MIT and Georgetown, facial recognition technology was also observed to showcase less accuracy leading to biases based on people of colour.

In the end, the legal notice called for “adequate safeguards and protection of target audiences” to be implemented while adopting new technology. The IFF demanded the NAFRS system be halted by issuing a public notice otherwise the foundation would be “constrained to seek remedies in accordance with the law.”

Home Ministry’s response

As a response to the legal notice sent by IFF, Business Standard reported that the home ministry claimed the system “does not violate the principle of consent”. It added that the system will be primarily used to identify recovered children, unidentified people and dead bodies. Addressing the concern over the use of CCTV cameras in public places, the home ministry said that the footage will only be used if the video footage consists of clips from the scene of a crime. It also went on to clarify that the facial recognition system won’t be integrated with the Aadhaar database.

The IFF once again sent a response to the NCRB’s latest claims on 6 November and Business Standard reported that IFF restated its demand for the recall of the tender document.

We reached out to IFF on the same and they said that they are currently waiting for an acknowledgement from the NCRB. “While we hope for the NCRB to write back so we can engage with them further on the perils of the NAFRS, we will at some point before the deadline ends reach out referencing updated material on the need to halt the call for tender if there has been no action taken,” the IFF added.

Here’s where you can refer to the important documents

Mass surveillance implications with Pegasus spyware

The recent discovery of the Pegasus spyware developed by the Israeli company NSO Group showcased how targeted devices can be completely surveilled. The modular spyware tool installs the necessary modules to read the user’s messages and mail, listen to calls, send back the browser history and more. It can even listen in to encrypted audio and text files on a device that makes all the data up for grabs. Several high-profile Indian officials were targeted with this tool.

On being asked about how the idea of a centralised facial recognition system would work with the context of an existing and harmful spyware tool, IFF said since Pegasus isn’t a mass deployment tool it doesn’t “tie into the furthering of mass surveillance” directly. It also pointed out that while the use of Pegasus is criminalised under the Information Technology Act, 2000, a system such as NAFRS will be afforded a legal basis through legislation.

“While Pegasus in itself might not aid the worries attributed to facial recognition systems, individuals surveilled through facial recognition could possibly be linked to any information acquired through the use of this surveillance tool for the furtherance of a specific narrative. All in all, this undoubtedly contributes to the surveillance economy that India is finding itself in,” stated IFF.

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