Experts flag privacy concerns as Telangana uses facial recognition for polls

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After launching DigiYatra, which is based on facial recognition technology, at the airport in Delhi, Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia said data shared by the passengers will be stored in an encrypted format and in a decentralised manner | Representative Image: iStock

For the first time in an Indian election, facial recognition technology was used by the Telangana government in the recently-held municipal elections. However, it has raised privacy concerns with digital activists arguing that using such an untested technology could lead to mass surveillance and misidentification and would infringe on the core democratic right to vote.

The facial recognition app, involving advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, big data and machine learning, was used on a pilot basis in 10 polling stations for urban local body elections in Kompally Municipality on the city outskirts.

While the authorities claimed that it was successful, the opposition parties and activists said using such a technology, without first putting place a robust privacy law, was problematic.

How does it work?


The mobile app is used for voter verification at polling stations using real-time authentication capabilities. The polling officer will first click pictures of the voters and their identity cards on a mobile phone loaded with the facial recognition app and then send them to the Telangana State Technology Services (TSTS). After matching, the result will be sent back to the mobile phone within a few seconds.

“Even if the result is negative, the persons will be allowed to vote based on the prescribed process of identification using their ID card,” the State Election Commission (SEC) Secretary M Ashok Kumar said.

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The main benefit of this technology is that it can prevent impersonation and bogus voting. “It has proved to be an effective tool to authenticate the identity of voters. However, this is proposed as an additional tool to validate the identity of the voter, apart from the existing procedures prescribed, such as photo electoral rolls and photo ID proof,” the official said.

Moreover, the photographs are not stored or used for any other purpose. They will be erased from both the mobile phones used in the polling stations and the TSTS server. “There are problems with using just voter identification cards for verification. This is an additional step to curb impersonation,” the secretary said.

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The SEC officials have also pointed out that the voters of Kompally municipality, where the system was tested on a pilot basis, were very happy as it made the voting process swift and hassle-free.

Key concerns

The main argument against the introduction of Facial Recognition System (FRS) is that it is open to misuse and exploitation in the absence of a privacy law that protects the rights of the citizens.

“There is no legal basis for this untested technology which is an act of mass surveillance system. Due to high inaccuracy rates coupled with the use of law enforcement, it throws up risks of bias that have a high probability in causing coercive action,” said the Internet Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group working in the area of digital equality.

From building an underlying database of people from public protests to running it on crowds of people attending rallies, this system can have far-reaching surveillance applications, directly impairs the rights of ordinary Indians from assembly, speech and political participation.

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The use of such technologies, where consent of the people is not taken, goes against the spirit of the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in 2017, ruling privacy as a fundamental right.

The FRS can use both video and static images as input to check a person’s credentials against a database. Since the software runs on an Artificial Intelligence platform, it has the ability to improve over time.

In the absence of a clear privacy or data protection law, which is pending before the Parliament, it is difficult to trust the government agencies seeking to adopt these technologies.

No defence

At present, Indian citizens have little or no defence against misuse of surveillance technologies because there is almost no regulation to guide the use of FRS. “This lack of any regulation is what the police seem to be taking advantage of,” says N S Nappinai, cyber law expert and a Supreme Court lawyer.

“The right to privacy judgement of the apex court clearly says that you need laws to allow the State to do it,” he said.

Political opposition

The Hyderabad MP and president of All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) Asaduddin Owaisi has opposed the introduction of FRS in the municipal polls, saying it amounted to a violation of right to privacy. “It doesn’t have any statutory basis and serves no legitimate state aim,” he said.

In the absence of any statutory procedure to seek consent from individuals, this procedure is fraught with constitutional irregularity, the MP argued.

“If the aim of the State is to address the issue of impersonation during elections, it should explain why existing procedures for fraud-detection are inadequate or how this technology will augment its efforts,” Owaisi said.

The experts also argue that using facial recognition system was contingent upon the creation of large databases of “facial contours and features” of citizens, and such databases were susceptible to breach and misuse.

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“There is a perceptible rise in national security being a central premise for policy design. It is worrying that technology is being used as an instrument of power by the state rather than as an instrument to empower citizens,” a member of the Internet Freedom Foundation said.

When linked to a common citizen database, such as Aadhaar or voter records, the FRS becomes a classic example of mass surveillance. Such a system allows the enforcement authorities to conduct surveillance on citizens.

FRS in policing

Several states, including Delhi, Punjab and Telangana, are already using the FRS in police departments as part of modernisation plans to catch criminals and find missing children.

The Telangana police have been using the system since August 2018. “We have been able to crack several important cases using this software. It doesn’t matter if we don’t know an offender’s name, we will certainly get him by his face,’’ says Rachakonda Police Commissioner Mahesh M Bhagwat.

Similarly, Punjab police have adopted an app called Punjab Artificial Intelligence System (PAIS). The app helped the police digitize its records and analyse a crime using FRS and other emerging technologies.

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