On July 18, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) sent a legal notice to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for inviting bids for the implementation of Automated Facial Recognition Systems (AFRS). IFF also sent a letter and a copy of the notice to Home Minister Amit Shah and Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba, “highlighting the features and scope of the AFRS and its unfathomable detriment … to Indians if implemented”. MediaNama has reached out to NCRB for comment.

IFF’s argument

  • Absence of legality: No statutory or executive basis for the requirement of AFRS. It also violates privacy, and does not fulfil the three conditions (legality, legitimate state aim, and proportionality of the legitimate aim) necessary for violating privacy under the Puttaswamy judgement.
  • Manifest arbitrariness in the selection of a technical solution: As the system intends to combine the various databases available with state police across the country, and upload images from CCTV footage, newspapers, raids, sketches, etc., subjects of the images will not know. How their images are being used. As a result, there is no consent whatsoever. Studies have shown that algorithms replicate biases prevalent in society. Mis-identification and discriminatory profiling will become the norm.
  • Absence of any proportionality/safeguards: The RFP largely “delegates aspects of storage and access to the selected bidder and provides no concrete insight as to required limitations or restrictions or impact on the rights of individuals identified”.
  • Absence of safeguards and accountability: No overarching legal framework to protect informational privacy and no safeguards to regulate the technology and any resulting “mass surveillance and discriminatory dystopia” it could create.

In response to MediaNama’s queries, IFF sent the following response:

Our legal notice to the NCRB is on the basis of an evaluation of it’s [sic] legality and the grave threat to individual privacy. Our earnest hope is for a reconsideration given not only it is illegal but it is also causing widespread public concern. Cancelling this tender will help resolve this issue in line with our constitutional guarantees. To promote this conversation in addition to the notice we have also sent a letter to the Home Ministry to treat it as a representation. In the unfortunate event such an outcome is not achieved after receiving inputs from our teams of legal counsel we will examine all possibilities of challenge under law. IFF has in the past been a litigant and also assisted other litigants on core issues of digital rights. In such challenges we approach courts with care, often after exhausting consultative and cooperative frameworks to impact change. [emphasis ours]

NCRB’s call for bids for implementing AFRS defined the broad scope of work in fairly innocuous terms — “supply, installation and commissioning of hardware and software at NCRB” — but the detailed request for proposal (RFP) was anything but innocuous. The RFP stated that this “is an effort in the direction of modernising the police force, information gathering, criminal identification, verification and its dissemination among various police organisations and units across the country”.

This AFRS will be “a centralised web application hosted at the NCRB Data Centre in Delhi with DR in non-seismic zone which will be made available for access to all the police stations of the country”. It will be the foundation for “a national level searchable platform of facial images”.

Read more about NCRB’s Automatic Facial Recognition System and its request for proposal here.

***Updated (July 23, 2019 9:25 am): The article was updated with IFF’s response. This article was originally published on July 22, 2019.