The Communications Ministry on February 3, 2023 confirmed the government’s use of ‘Artificial Intelligence and Facial Recognition Powered Solution for Telecom Sim Subscriber Verification – ASTR’ on SIM card subscribers. The confirmation came a month after MediaNama’s explainer on ASTR and its use by the Department of Telecommunications.
What is ASTR? ASTR is a system that was created by the department to address the issues of SIM-card fraud. It basically uses subscriber images and compares them to groups of similar images using facial recognition. However, during a MediaNama event, it came to light most subscribers seem to be unaware of the processing of their data in such a way.
Ministry confirms ASTR’s existence: Rajya Sabha members Rajani Ashokrao Patil and K.C. Venugopal asked the Department to confirm the existence of ASTR and its use on subscribers. To this, Minister of State for Communications Devusinh Chauhan said:
“Yes, a solution namely Artificial Intelligence and Facial Recognition powered Solution for Telecom SIM Subscriber Verification (ASTR) exists… Yes, ASTR is being run on the images of the subscribers available in Customer Acquisition Form (CAF).”
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No details of customer privacy protection: Further questions were asked about notifications circulated regarding ASTR and storage and security details of the data collected through ASTR. The Ministry replied that office memorandums were sent on October 3, 2021, March 11, 2022 and August 31, 2022 announcing the pilot project in Haryana, the hotspots identified by Ministry of Home Affairs for using the system, and the use of facial recognition image analysis respectively.
As for security measures, it simply said, “Due security measures by maintaining data in secured server have been adopted.”
MediaNama, first to flag ASTR usage: The use of ASTR was discussed publicly during a Telecom Bill event organised by MediaNama. Experts concerned about the Bill were gathered at the Delhi venue and were shocked to hear about the ASTR programme. What’s surprising is that the Haryana police that has nabbed criminals using ASTR have mentioned the system by name in news reports. Yet, somehow, the same is not public knowledge – even for the people whose data is being processed.
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