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Here are 6 ways the Indian government is collecting your facial data

The IT Ministry, in response to a parliamentary question, listed 6 areas where govt authorities are using Facial Recognition Technology

What’s the news: While answering Lok Sabha questions on the government’s use of facial recognition systems, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) listed six areas where authorities used the technology:

  1. DigiYatra – for providing passengers seamless and hassle-free experience at airports without the need for verification of ticket and ID at multiple touch points.
  2. ASTR – Department of Telecommunication uses the “AI and Facial Recognition powered solution for Telecom SIM Subscriber Verification (ASTR),” an indigenous technology to detect and weed out fraudulent SIM subscribers.
  3. Sarathi app – Facial recognition system is being used to identify applicants for a contactless Learner License Test in the Sarathi application.
  4. UIDAI face authentication – As per the Ministry, the UIDAI provided face authentication of Aadhaar number holders on a “Proof of concept” basis to the National Health Authority, the Department of Pension & Pensioners Welfare for Jeevan Pramaan application, and CeG [Centre for e-Governance], Karnataka. Following a circular on June 3, 2022, it was also rolled out for all Authentication User Agencies (AUA). This implies the sharing of many people’s biometric data across a wide range of departments. The Ministry also argued that face authentication differed from the facial recognition system because it utilizes one-to-one face matching after obtaining individual consent.
  1. Meghraj Cloud – This is a government initiative to accelerate the delivery of e-services in India. By March 20, 2023, of the financial year 2022-23, there were around 6.86 Crore AI service requests from various users, such as:

– CBSE, NTA, Result Division – Candidate’s Registration System (CARES)

– Meghalaya pensioner life certificate

– SarathiParivahan

– Utkarsh Bangla

– ePrisons

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  1. Government offices in Delhi – The Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) deployed indigenously designed facial-recognition systems at its New Delhi campus office, TCIL office in New Delhi, and at the DOT Sanchar Bhawan, as part of a proof of concept.

Point to note: This list does not mention the use of facial recognition by law enforcement agencies like the Delhi police or Odisha’s Smart City authorities.

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Why it matters: It wasn’t until MediaNama wrote an explainer on ASTR that it was made known that the telecom department collects subscribers’ facial data. Such instances highlight that there are still many questions regarding the use of surveillance technology in government initiatives. This list sheds some light on this front although, as pointed out above, it is not a comprehensive list of all use cases in India. Questions like this also hint at people’s growing awareness of potential government surveillance and privacy risks. It is important to raise such questions, especially after MediaNama’s investigation into Digi Yatra wherein the Ministry of Civil Aviation only recently revealed one cannot seek information about Digi Yatra under the RTI Act.

MeitY says no reliable data on FRT inaccuracy

In his questions, MP Balashowry Vallabhaneni sought to confirm whether the minimum accuracy rate for vehicle recognition is 95 percent. As a follow-up question, he also asked, “whether the Government is aware that the accuracy rate of FRT is between 80-90% which leaves a lot of room for false positives?”

To this, Minister of State Rajeev Chandrasekhar said, “There is no reliable information regarding inaccuracy of the FRT technology.”

He claimed that as per the National Informatic Centre (NIC) AI Division, which provides the FRT technology for Sarathi, the accuracy rate is 99.9 percent. However, the Automatic Number Place Recognition (ANPR) system for vehicle identification “is used by external agencies authorized by State Police/ Transport Authorities for identification of traffic violations.”

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It may be mentioned that in August 2022, the Delhi police confirmed that even an accuracy rate as low as 80 percent is considered “positive” enough to target individuals accused of rioting. This means that even those with lower accuracy matches remain under the police’s list of suspects.

MeitY claims no misuse of facial recognition system

When asked about instances of misuse of facial recognition for malicious purposes, the Ministry said, “No, Sir. Government is not aware of any cases where the FRT technology has been misused for malicious purposes.”

At the same time, when asked about measures to prevent misuse of FRT by law enforcement agencies, MeitY said, “‘Police’ and ‘Public Order’ are State subjects and the responsibilities to maintain law and order including investigation and prosecution of crime rests with the respective State Governments. There have been no reports with regard of any misuse of FRT.”

Privacy experts are worried about the possibility of a ‘surveillance state’ via excess and unrestricted use of such technologies. In the absence of a data protection law to protect citizens’ data, it is worrisome that the government has dismissed this question of Vallabhaneni as a State subject concern.

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

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Written By

I'm interested in the shaping and strengthening of rights in the digital space. I cover cybersecurity, platform regulation, gig worker economy. In my free time, I'm either binge-watching an anime or off on a hike.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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