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Facial recognition technology being used at NTPC for biometric attendance, says Minister of Power in Parliament

Since the onset of the pandemic, the deployment of attendance-registering systems equipped with facial recognition technology has been on the rise in India. 

Facial recognition technology (FRT) is being used in the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC), Minister of Power Rakesh Singh revealed in response to a parliamentary question in Rajya Sabha. The question was submitted by Congress Rajya Sabha MPs Akhilesh Prasad Singh and Phulo Devi Netam.

Singh said, “On this background, NTPC has been using biometric attendance for its employees including FRT.”

While Singh said, “NTPC follows all laws of the land, applicable for electronic and biometric data in the implementation of Facial Recognition Technology (FRT)”, he also stated that as per the policy of NTPC, the consent of employees shall not be required for the implementation of FRT.

Why it matters? Facial recognition technology is being deployed by the government at a rapid scale in locations such as examination centres, airports, railways, and defence PSUs. Though the government claims that it’s being done in order to ensure contact-less interactions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to note that usage of FRT requires people to remove their masks. Increased usage of FRT is also concerning because India does not have a law to regulate the usage of personal data and the draft Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 is yet to be passed. FRT has also come under the scanner for its inaccuracies in identifying people of colour, according to a research study

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The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) had filed an RTI in May requesting information about the legalities, SOPs, and cost, risk-benefit analysis of using FRT at NTPC, Chhattisgarh. No information was provided by the government.

Facial Recognition Technology in other government divisions 

The government has been pushing the use of FRT across various agencies and departments such as:

  • Defence Ministry: Two PSUs, Indian Ordnance Factories for Metal and Steel Factory and Garden Reach Ship Builders and Engineers Limited (GRSE), under the Defence Ministry, had floated tenders for the installation of a facial recognition biometric attendance system citing COVID-19 guidelines. The Indian Army office in Assam had also released a tender for a facial recognition attendance system with a temperature-checking and touch-less sanitizer kiosk.
  • Railways: Four years ago, the Indian government had ruled that all the railway stations in India will be equipped with FRT-equipped CCTV cameras. Out of 938 railway stations, work has been completed in 310 railway stations only, the Railway Minister had said in Parliament.
  • Airports: Systems equipped with facial recognition technology are currently being implemented at six airports in India – Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Pune, Varanasi, and Vijayawada, the Minister of State for Civil Aviation General Vijay Kumar Singh said in Parliament.

Full text of Question and Answer  

Question: 

(a) the legal framework under which the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) seeks to implement Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) for employees attendance;

(b) whether Government intends to expand usage of FRT to other PSUs;

(c) the legal justification by the Government on how the use of FRT by NTPC will not violate the Fundamental Right to Privacy of its employees;

(d) whether employees will be required to provide explicit consent to be subjected to FRT; and

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(e) if so, details thereof including how such consent will be acquired and the course of action for those employees who do not provide such explicit consent?

Answer: 

(a) & (b): NTPC follows all laws of the land, applicable for electronic and Biometric Data in implementation of Facial Recognition Technology (FRT). As a progressive organization, NTPC has been embracing the latest technologies with reference to capturing employees’ attendance without compromising the discipline, quality, and privacy of the individual. On this background, NTPC has been using biometric attendance for its employees including FRT. The use of FRT has increased during COVID times as it provides contact-less capturing of employee attendance thereby enhancing safety and protecting the health of employees. Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) under the Ministry of Power (MoP) take their own decision on attendance protocol based on their Corporate Governance requirements. The MoP has not issued any instructions in this regard.

(c) to (e): NTPC has issued internal policy guidelines on the Security of Biometric Data captured for the Attendance and Access control system in NTPC. As per the policy of NTPC, the consent of employees shall not be required for the implementation of FRT.

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