Indian state uses facial recognition in local elections amid privacy fears


As the country’s first, the southern Indian state of Telangana used facial recognition software in its local elections on Wednesday, Jan 22, despite growing concerns about privacy and surveillance technology.

In an online notification a week prior, the state election commission said facial recognition software will be used to verify voters in 10 polling stations in the Medchai Malkajgiri district to “reduce impersonation cases”.

The privacy of voters will be protected, and their photographs will not be stored or used “for any other purpose”, according to the order.

A negative result will not be grounds to deny voting rights to anyone, it said.

“Facial recognition is not fool-proof, and in this instance, misidentification can lead to disenfranchisement, which impinges on a core democratic right to vote,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at digital rights advocacy Access Now.

“It is unclear what legal framework it is being used under, and how the data will be secured and used,” he said.

Telangana’s move comes as facial recognition technology is being installed in airports, railway stations and cafes across India, and as the government prepares to roll out a nationwide system, likely to be the world’s biggest.

Last month, the technology was used to screen crowds at a political rally for the first time, sparking fears that it was also being used to profile people at protests.

Indian authorities have said the technology is needed to bolster a severely under-policed country, and to stop criminals and find missing children.

India’s Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling in 2017 on the national biometric identity card programme, said individual privacy is a fundamental right.

Yet the ruling has not held back the rollout of facial recognition technology, according to digital rights activists who say its use is problematic without a data protection law.

The Personal Data Protection Bill, introduced in parliament last month, empowers the government to ask a company to hand over anonymised personal data and other non-personal data.

In Telangana, the technology is vital for tackling fraudulent voting, and voters will not have the option to opt out, said M. Ashok Kumar, secretary of the state’s election commission.

“There are problems with using just voter identification cards for verification. This is an additional step to curb impersonation,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We think it will be an effective tool, and that it can be deployed more widely after this trial,” he said.

India is not the only country to use facial recognition in elections. Afghanistan used it in presidential polls last year, a move that women’s rights activists said deterred many female voters from participating.

Elsewhere, backlash against the technology is growing. San Francisco and Oakland in the United States have banned its use, while the European Union is considering a similar move in public areas for up to five years. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)