The Telangana State Election Commission (TSEC), on January 18, announced that a facial recognition app would be used on a pilot basis at 10 polling stations in the Kompally Municipality in the upcoming civic elections in the state. The department claimed that “impersonation” remains an issue during polls, and a facial recognition system will bring “objectivity to voter verification work”. It further claimed that authenticating voters by using technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and deep learning, that leave behind a digital trail, can help in reducing impersonation cases significantly. The department would use a facial recognition system already being used by the Telangana State Technology Services (TSTS) for validating the identity of pensioners.

How the face recognition infrastructure would work: Explaining how the system will work, M. Ashok Kumar, TSEC Secretary, said that an additional polling officer will verify the ID of a voter and then take their picture and upload it to the servers of Telangana State Technology Services, using a Face Recognition app.

The photograph will then be “photo matched” using a deep learning based photo comparison app. Prior to that, a voter’s Electors Photo Identity Card, along with something called an “asynchronous ID” would be uploaded to the EPIC system at each polling booth. We have reached out to the state’s election commission for clarification on what ‘asynchronous ID’ is.

The department said that matched IDs would be deemed as authorised voters, and digital logs would be available real time and stored. The entire process would take anywhere between 10-30 seconds, and in case of “unclear cases,” which it claimed would be of a “small percentage,” voters can be verified manually.

How the face recognition infrastructure would work

The commission further claimed that the entire transmission process would be “properly encrypted” and IDs would be anonymised. In what it called a “information sanitisation” this is a process of “either” encrypting “or” removing personally identifiable information from the data.

  • It isn’t clear what exactly the commission means to imply here: does it want to encrypt the data or remove personally identifiable information, or do both? We have asked them about this as well.

TSEC also said that the photos uploaded by the face recognition app would be “deleted immediately after the purpose is fulfilled,” from both the mobile phone and also Telangana State Technology Services’ servers.

  • However, this contradicts an earlier statement made in the release, where the department claimed that a “digital trail” will help in reducing voter impersonation. How can there be a trail if the data is immediately deleted?

Is this compulsory? Can people who refuse be denied voting rights? While Kumar said that the process of verifying voters following a face recognition would be an “additional measure,” he did not clarify if this would also be an opt-in facility. What if a voter doesn’t want to go through the facial recognition system? Can the polling officer deny that person of their voting right? Additionally, not making this an opt-in feature can potentially set a precedent for future elections in the country, where citizens will necessarily have to go through a face recognition test. There could be concerns of potential voter profiling.

“If the same technology is being used everywhere, it will only lead to voter profiling like what Aadhaar has done in the past in Andhra Pradesh,” said Srinivas Kodali, an independent security researcher. He also said that since the technology “is already mandatory in distribution of pension in Telangana, so it is likely to become mandatory [for future elections]”.

Why do we even need this? On top of all that, it also seems like a futile exercise — one which is likely to consume more resources and man power. First, the election commission of Telangana would have to appoint an additional polling officer just to handle the facial recognition part of the verification. Second, this is being an “additional” exercise, people failing the face recognition test can still get themselves verified by the traditional means. What will the additional face recognition test achieve in that case?

  • Moreover, this additional exercise requires 10 new 4G Android smartphones with a dual SIM facility, and minimum specification of 2GB RAM and a 4 MP camera. This, too, is an additional expense.

The Election Commission of India wants Aadhaar-Voter ID linkage: TSEC joins the the Election Commission of India in coming up with an idea to address the issue of bogus voters. ECI wants the Representation of the People Act, 1950, amended to allow Aadhaar and Voter ID linkage, which it believes is in national interest.

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