With protests under constant surveillance, Modi’s massive facial recognition system is making it easier to crack down on minorities and political opponents.
A few months after Narendra Modi was re-elected in 2019, India’s Parliament passed a discriminatory bill extending citizenship to refugees from six religious minority communities, except for Muslims from the neighboring countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Following the controversy, a series of protests erupted across the country. The capital city of Delhi witnessed ghastly communal riots, as members of the minority Muslim community were targeted by far-right groups that rallied in support of the bill. To identify the alleged “rabble rousers and miscreants,” including the protesters, law enforcement officials acknowledged using what they called the Automated Facial Recognition System. This new tool allows manual screening that can identify individuals based on physical features like race, gender, and age and link the details with pre-existing official documents like passports, driver’s licenses and voter IDs, creating a database that helped police arrest thousands of alleged rioters.
The use of facial recognition had been initially sanctioned by India’s top court in 2018 to trace nearly 3,000 missing children in the capital. However, authorities have gradually and illegally widened the use of this technology to curb dissent in recent years. It was deployed to surveil at least three major demonstrations in the absence of a data protection law in India.
“Today there exists no remedy for the violation of many digital rights that emerge from the expansive collection and procession of personal data for Indians,” states the digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, or IFF. “The existing legal vacuum on data protection portends an Orwellian state and is clearly an infringement of the fundamental right to privacy.”
Over the years IFF has filed multiple Right to Information applications at the Central Information Commission concerning mass surveillance. Anushka Jain, Associate Policy Counsel for Surveillance and Transparency at the organization, received a response on a legal demand that questioned the technology’s accuracy. It stated that Delhi police considered any result showing above an 80 percent similarity as a positive match in order to target accused rioters.
Earlier, the law enforcement officers reported the technology’s accuracy rate at 2 percent. A year later, the number fell by a percent, and it was unable to distinguish individuals by their genders. Subsequently, Jain warned about the “chilling effect” the contentious technology will have on the rights of citizens.
Although the court declared privacy to be an inalienable fundamental right, the Modi government is using several surveillance technologies like drone mapping, DNA fingerprinting, video analytics and geo location to conduct “free and fair” investigations during protests.
Of the more than 1.5 million CCTV cameras installed across 15 Indian cities, Hyderabad and Chennai are among the highest surveilled cities, with 375,000 and 280,000 cameras installed respectively. According to cybersecurity research firm Comparitech, Delhi, with nearly 1,500 cameras installed per square mile, is the most surveilled city in the world outside of China.
In August, authorities developed an additional “Face Recognition System under Disguise” for the armed forces to identify individuals through face masks. The state intends to expand its use in public places, which will raise the risk of intrusive data policing in the country. As the world’s largest facial recognition surveillance system continues to be built, India plans to construct a centralized database threatening citizen’s privacy.
In 2020, India witnessed the world’s largest protest, when authorities passed three controversial farm laws that brought farmers from various states to Delhi’s borders. The demonstration continued for nearly a year and was reportedly hijacked on Jan. 26, 2021 during a tractor rally at the historic Red Fort that took a violent turn. During the period, Delhi police claimed to use surveillance systems like facial recognition technology and drone mapping to track down the protesters on site.
Harinder Happy, a member of the IT Cell, which provided technical support and countered misinformation at the farmers’ protest, says that almost no one knew that facial recognition technology was used by authorities from the start of the protest to target individual demonstrators.
“It is a collective effort to curb the democratic rights of citizens and push dissent to the corner,” Happy said. “We cannot fight them [the authorities] on technical grounds, but we did fight by creating platforms across various social media websites and carried out awareness campaigns. We countered the narratives of the government as well as pro-government media.”
According to IFF, there are currently at least 124 ongoing facial recognition projects being developed and deployed by authorities that can cause irreversible harm.
One place that India has been constantly monitoring with drones is the densely militarized Kashmir. After the Himalayan region was stripped of its special autonomous status in August 2019, the valley was put under complete lockdown, which was extended once the pandemic hit. In December, the Modi administration announced new plans to deploy a facial recognition system and install nearly 300 CCTV cameras in the summer capital of Srinagar to “preempt and prevent attacks” on security forces by militants.
Bring the ban
With the Bharatiya Janata Party’s emergence in 2014, the far-right administration propagated Hindu supremacism that deepened religious polarization in the country. The minority Muslim community, which make up 14 percent of the population, are facing discrimination, arbitrary arrests and demolition of their homes for criticizing the authorities. Despite condemnation by international organizations — such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International — harassment continues.
SQ Masood, a prominent Muslim activist who has been fighting for citizen’s basic human rights in the city of Hyderabad, was randomly pulled over by the state police one evening in May 2021. They took mugshots of him on their handheld tablet without his consent. As he later passed by a Muslim neighborhood on a two-wheeler, he saw a dozen police officers stationed to carry out the same task with other riders.
“This is excessive policing, and it violates our right to privacy,” Masood said. The police “are largely using the technology against illiterate, marginalized and minority communities. It’s a global trend.”
In December, Masood filed a lawsuit with legal support from IFF against the commissioner of police and the state of Telangana to stop the use of facial recognition technology. After receiving no reply, he investigated what would happen to his photograph and found out about the illegal use of the technology, such as identifying voters at polling stations and supplying essential services to the poor.
“How will authorities address our fundamental rights, which are being violated in broad daylight as they take photographs and store them?” Masood asked. “We cannot stop this, but we are asking for accountability from the state.”
Months later, Amnesty International declared that Hyderabad was turning into a “surveillance city.” In partnership with IFF and the international human rights organization Article 19, Amnesty launched a campaign called “Ban the Scan” to stop the use of facial recognition technology. The nonprofits chose two neighborhoods in the city as a sample to map the presence of CCTV cameras outdoors. They found that nearly 50 percent of these areas are under surveillance. In addition, the city has been constructing a Command and Control Center, or CCC, that will reportedly process data from 600,000 CCTV cameras at a time and link to the pre-existing state police database.
“Facial recognition technology can track who you are, where you go, what you do and who you know,” said Article 19 Executive Director Quinn McKew. “It threatens human rights including the right to privacy, and puts some of the most vulnerable in society at risk. The construction of the CCC has chilling consequences for the right to freedom of expression and assembly.”
As part of her work on IFF’s Panoptic Project — a facial recognition system tracker — Jain wrote to the authorities on the rising concerns around citizens’ data security and privacy. She asked them to address ongoing issues around the use of facial recognition technology and consult privacy experts on how it affects fundamental rights.
In a letter to the Indian Parliamentary Committee, the IFF stated that the surveillance tool’s illegal use could impact the marginalized due to rising inequality in India. “Calls for a total ban have been gaining momentum due to fear that use of facial recognition by the police and security/intelligence agencies will not only lead to violation of the rights to privacy and freedom of speech and expression, but also lead to human rights violations by helping to increase systemic bias against already marginalized communities,” the letter said.
The Criminal Procedure Identification Bill was passed in April, which allows law enforcement agencies to collect sensitive data like retina scans, fingerprints, footprints, palm-prints, signatures, and unspecified physical and biological samples that can be stored, shared or disseminated for up to 75 years.
“It’s not like the police want to put a lot of people in jails — they don’t have the capacity,” Srinivas Kodali, a digital rights researcher Srinivas Kodali, told in an interview with the BBC. “But what they want to do is put you under surveillance, [and keep] tabs on what you’re doing. The bill now gives this power to every constable on the street.”
As the intrusive law is implemented, critics fear the rise of a “dystopian surveillance state.” While it empowers the law enforcement agencies to abuse civil liberties that are guaranteed under the Indian Constitution, rights groups are concerned it will adversely affect dissidents, including human rights defenders.
“Any data collection in the absence of a data protection law is harmful,” Jain said. “It will only raise fear among demonstrators about whether their identities will be revealed and make them question joining the protest.”
Especially when the government is accused of hacking smartphones of dissenters and proposes to bring encrypted messaging platforms under legal framework as part of its “legal surveillance,” India is in severe need of a data protection law which it currently lacks.
On Aug. 3, as the drafted bill was withdrawn, the Joint Parliamentary Committee justified the move by stating several loopholes which allowed citizens’ data to be processed without consent. However, critics did not find it convincing. At the same time, the authorities have asserted to introduce a new legislation which will consider fundamental rights reportedly but the details of the bill have still not been disclosed.
While major companies like Amazon and Zoom have been fined $850.6 million and $85 million respectively for breaching European Union and U.S. data protection laws, India is awaiting its new law.
In response to the global proliferation of this technology, demonstrators have adapted several tactics — such as using lasers and wearing asymmetrical makeup — to avoid tracking. However, in India, protesters find it practically impossible to protect their identity when they are constantly surrounded by numerous surveillance systems.
“Even when I wore a face mask, they [the police] asked me to remove it,” Masood said. “It’s difficult to protect our identities. We cannot fight against the surveillance technologies like facial recognition, CCTV cameras and the AI based algorithms that they are using.”
The extensive and authoritarian use of facial recognition during demonstrations has led to arbitrary detentions, illegal surveillance and the breach of dissenters’ privacy. While at least 13 cities in the U.S. have outlawed the use of facial recognition, Indian authorities are going in the opposite direction — expanding what is already one of the largest surveillance systems in the world.
“We don’t have any specific safeguard in this digital era from the digitization of databases and their unlawful circulation,” Masood said. “It’s time we demand a privacy law.”