The Indian Railways is in the process of installing Video Surveillance Systems (VSS), equipped with a facial recognition system, in 983 railway stations across the country, the Ministry of Railways said in a statement on January 8. RailTel will provide these surveillance systems which will also be equipped with video analytics. Rs 250 crore has been allocated to the Ministry from the Nirbhaya fund to undertake this project.

Which areas of a railway station would be surveilled? These surveillance systems will be installed at platforms, waiting halls, reservation counters, parking areas, main entrance/exit, foot over bridges, and booking offices. They could also be potentially installed in railway coaches. Live feeds from the VSS will be monitored via multiple screens at the Railway Protection Force (RPF) control room.

Where will the data be stored, and for how long? Data collected as part of this exercise will be stored for 30 days for playback, analysis and investigation purposes. The Ministry also said that “important videos” can be stored for  “longer”, without specifying the exact duration for which these videos could be stored beyond the 30 day limit.

  • It also didn’t clarify what will potentially constitute “important videos”. The Ministry, however, specified that at least 5 TB worth of data will be collected by these surveillance systems, each month.

Surveillance at several railway stations, including Bengaluru, is already on: There will be a phase-wise installation of these surveillance systems, and the Ministry is targeting to cover 200 railway stations in the first phase. The first-phase will be completed by the end of this year, whereas for some railway divisions, such as South Western Railway which includes states such as Karnataka and Goa, it will be over by the end of January itself. It also said that as of January 8, these systems have been installed at 81 different railway stations.

  • The South Western Railway (SWR) has installed these surveillance systems at 17 locations including Bengaluru railway station with 71 Cameras, Yesvantpur with 35 Cameras, and Mysuru with 34 Cameras. Other major stations in the south western railway such as Bengaluru Cantt, Vasco-Da Gama, Ballari, and Belagavi have also commissioned the video surveillance system.
  • Security personnel can monitor these cameras not only from station control rooms but also from central security control rooms located at divisional headquarters in Hubballi, Mysuru and Bengaluru, the Ministry said.
  • The video surveillance system has also been installed at 10 Railway stations of Western Railway including Bhavnagar Terminus, Udhna, Valsad, Veraval, Nagda, Navsari, Vapi, Viragam, Rajkot and Gandhidham, per the release.

Facial recognition systems to come up at SWR division systems: In a separate press release, on January 9, South Western Railway said that artificial intelligence-equipped facial recognition systems were tested on a pilot basis at the Bengaluru division between May 2019 and October 2019. The project is expected be complete by February 2020.

  • These systems “succeeded” in demonstrating “100% acquisition of faces” and “100% matching accuracy”.
  • Why this matters: This suggests that several people whose faces would have been registered in the facial recognition system might not even be aware that their biometric data has been recorded by the railway station, given that SWR said in the release that “no person will be stopped for facial scan, yet 100 percent faces will be acquired and matched (sic)”.
  • A Twitter user questioned the seemingly high percentage of accuracy of the face recognition system and said that “nobody in the world has both 100% acquisition & 100% accuracy in matching, unless you rig the evaluation tests”. He also added that India doesn’t have a mandated law to deploy this surveillance system.

Facial recognition systems are becoming pervasive: Facial recognition systems have been active at several major Indian airports, including the Delhi airport. Facial recognition systems at airports have been installed under the DigiYatra initiative, at access areas of the airport, including airport entry, security check entry and boarding gate entry. The surveillance systems that are being installed at railway stations are seemingly different, because they have been deployed with the specific purpose of surveilling passengers/visitors at stations.

  • Meanwhile, the National Crime Records Bureau is inviting bids from vendors to develop the National Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS), which is expected to be the foundation for “a national level searchable platform of facial images”. The NCRB, in November 2019, had justified the legality of the AFRS on the basis of a 2009 cabinet note alone. At the moment we don’t know if the facial recognition capability equipped surveillance systems at railway stations will also be integrated with the AFRS when it comes into play.
  • Advocacy group, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) had said that the AFRS could be “unfathomably detrimental to Indians”.