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IFF demands Proactive Measures to make AI-governance projects public

The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) has asked the National Institute of Smart Government (NISG) for proactive measures to make the initiatives and their processes public.

Concerned about the lack of transparency in the deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) based projects and interventions initiated by Union and state governments over the last two years, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) on March 21, 2024 asked the National Institute for Smart Government (NISG) for proactive measures to make the initiatives and their processes public.

What is the NISG? As per the NISG website, it’s a not-for-profit company set up in 2002 by the Government of India (GoI) on the Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) model. The NISG assists governments for implementing smart governance, process reforms and digitalization.

In its letter to the NISG, the rights group said that even though the NISG identified ‘ensuring transparency’ as one of its core values, it “notice a lack of transparency across smart government projects that use emerging technology like AI, data learning, or automated decision-making.”

IFF is not the only one raising such complaints. In September 2023, a Chennai resident also raised objection to the widespread use of facial recognition-based AI by the city police. He had argued that the police used the technology to scan people’s face without their consent and without any explicit law allowing them to do so.

No public notices of pilot phases of AI-based projects: IFF pointed out that before introducing an AI-based project, a government agency should draft proposals, initiate tender and bidding processes, select and collaborate with technology providers, spend time on research, development, testing and impact assessments, initiate a pilot phase from which to draw findings to scale up the project.

“We have noticed in our research endeavours that unfortunately, such processes are not being made public by the involved government agencies. We have particularly noted that tenders or requests for proposals relating to AI technology are not uploaded on government websites, unlike other tenders which are routinely posted and updated,” said IFF emphasizing that this makes it difficult to ascertain whether governments have followed procedural propriety and what public-private partnerships have been made. It asked the NISG and other public authorities to proactively upload project information, tenders, and updates on their websites.

Recently, the government has also started using facial recognition for pension schemes. This, despite the fact that pensioners are older people who popularly struggle with smart phones and face age-bias by AI, shows that there must be more discussion amongst authorities before approving such a policy.

RTI requests for tenders denied: The IFF said it filed RTI applications to get the following information regarding such AI-related tenders:

  • the nature of the technology used
  • the terms of tenders
  • MoUs and data sharing agreements entered between the government and technology providers
  • accuracy and impact assessments of the intervention
  • related costs

“In our experience of seeking information on about 30 AI-based projects over a period of 10 months, for the most part, we have not received any response from the government after the lapse of the 30-day limitation period within such information must be furnished. The responses that we do get, fail to reveal any relevant information,” said the IFF.

It may be mentioned that MediaNama too has faced these issues when asking for tender-related information to the Western Railways about their CCTV surveillance or enquiring about the Department of Telecommunication’s ASTR facial recognition system.

AI not ready for welfare service delivery in India: IFF advised against the use of AI, in its present form, should not be used in welfare service delivery by the Union government at all, “as the datasets training the AI models are often not free from bias.” Referring to the use of AI in welfare schemes as well as its usage by the UK police, the IFF said:

an algorithm used by the Department for Work and Pensions led to dozens of people having their benefits removed;

a facial recognition tool used by the Metropolitan police made more mistakes recognizing dark-skinned faces than light ones;

an algorithm used by the Home Office to flag up sham marriages disproportionately selects people of certain nationalities.

As such it asked Indian authorities to first invest time towards studying the technologies and their potential applications as well as their impact on human rights, social equity, and good governance.

Is AI even effective in governance? A question worth asking in light of this move for AI-based governance is whether such technology is required in this sector. In December 2023, Jammu and Kashmir’s Kishtwar district announced an “AI Based Facial Recognition Camera & E-Beat book Mobile App” to help digitise data of beats, improve record-building and police verifications. The app is supposed to help the police to “trace and monitor terrorists, over ground workers, former terrorists, drug-peddlers and those wanted in other criminal activities.”

Similarly, in February 2023, MediaNama broke the story about a Railways tender seeking to set up face-detecting cameras inside coaches across India. However, a question these tenders and announcements fail to answer is whether these technologies will really prove to be effective in fighting crime. The same goes for when such AI is used in educational sectors. In Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow primary school teachers signed a dissent note when the local administration mandated attendance to be marked by a facial recognition application on their mobile phones.

However, with confirmed concerns of age-bias and racial-bias by these AIs and no tender details accessible to the public, are Indian residents prepared for (or even in need of) an AI-based governance?

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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.

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