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Why is the contract for telecom department’s facial recognition service ASTR confidential?

Responding to an RTI request filed by MediaNama asking for a copy of the contract for ASTR, the dept said any ASTR-related work contains confidential info.

Following the Department of Telecommunication’s (DoT) failure to provide information about ASTR solution’s data safeguard and retention regulations, MediaNama filed another RTI application requesting a copy of the final contract for the technology. However, the department declined this request stating: “The work related to ASTR solutions contains confidential information which have personal details of subscribers also. Hence, information can not be provided as per RTI Act clause no 8(1)(a) and 8(1)(j).” What is ASTR? The Artificial Intelligence & Facial Recognition Powered Solution for Telecom Sim Subscriber Verification (ASTR) is a system that uses subscriber images provided by Telecom Subscriber Providers (TSPs) to detect duplication of SIM card registrations under different names, guardian name, date of birth or any other KYC parameter. In 2022, MediaNama filed an RTI application with the DoT asking for ASTR's tender document along with other details like data storage location, retention and user consent policy. It failed to answer these questions after which MediaNama filed a first appeal but to no avail. The Communications Ministry confirmed the government's use of ASTR in February 2023. Why it matters: No one was aware of the telecom department’s use of facial recognition via ASTR solutions until MediaNama’s coverage of the same. It was only at a MediaNama conference in November last year that an attendant working in the telecom sector even mentioned this system. Indian citizens have largely been kept in the dark about the processing of their facial data which is a violation of their right to privacy.…

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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.

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