Facial recognition tech used to crackdown India’s dissidents, activists say


Facial recognition technology has been used by the Indian police in New Delhi and the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, both hotbeds of dissent, during protests that have raged since mid-December of last year against a new citizenship law that critics say marginalises Muslims.

Activists are worried about insufficient regulation around the new technology, amid what they say is a crackdown on dissent under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist agenda has gathered pace since his re-election in May.

The government has also been criticised for its secrecy in its use of the technology, highlighting for instance that the software’s use during Delhi protests was first revealed by the Indian Express newspaper.

India’s home ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment on facial recognition technology.

But police said worries about facial recognition were unwarranted.

“I’m only catching targeted people,” said Rajan Bhagat, a deputy commissioner of police at Delhi’s Crime Records Office. “We don’t have any protesters’ data, nor do we plan to store it,” although he declined to give details of potential arrests, however.

When it comes to surveillance, India trails far behind neighbouring China. New Delhi, for example, has about 0.9 CCTV cameras for every 100 people, versus about 11.3 per 100 in China’s commercial hub of Shanghai, a 2019 report by PreciseSecurity.com showed.

The Delhi police use Indian start-up Innefu Labs’ facial recognition software AI Vision, which also includes gait and body analysis.

Financial fraud analytics are among the services provided by Innefu, which published a social media analysis in January that concluded much criticism of the new citizenship law came from archenemy Pakistan to “destabilize the harmony” of India.

The company is representative of home-grown artificial intelligence start-ups tapping into booming demand for facial biometrics in India, in part thanks to their testing on Indian faces and more affordable prices.

Meanwhile, facial recognition helped police in Uttar Pradesh, home to 220 million people, detain a “handful” of the more than 1,100 people arrested for alleged links to violence during protests, said O P Singh, its police chief who retired last month.

Singh gave no details but said the technology helped cut the numbers of wrongful arrests and highlighted the state’s extensive database of more than 550,000 “criminals”.

Rights groups have decried what they call excessive force in Uttar Pradesh, which has the largest number of representatives in parliament and is governed by hardliner Hindu priest and Modi ally Yogi Adityanath.

The technology used in Uttar Pradesh is supplied by another start-up Staqu, which is supplying its product, the Police Artificial Intelligence System, to eight other police states, says the firm’s co-founder, Atul Rai.

Modi’s government is seeking bids to create a nationwide database, the National Automated Facial Recognition System, to help match images captured from CCTV cameras with existing databases, including those of passport and police authorities.

A foreign firm is expected to win the contract, since the bid terms require firms’ algorithms to be evaluated by the United States’ National Institute of Standards and Technology. Both Innefu and Staqu said they were not bidding.

The system will boost police efficiency, says the National Crime Records Bureau, which launched the tender that closes at the end of March.

But critics say it puts India on the path to China-style mass surveillance. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)