Published on February 20, 2023 — Anushka Jain and Shivangani Misra
What is happening in Bengaluru?
Mass surveillance is slowly being embedded into the city of Bengaluru. FRT systems are being launched throughout the city with systems already in place at the airport, railway station, and in use by the metro authorities. In addition to these systems, the Bengaluru Police has also acquired FRT.
What is facial recognition technology (FRT)?
Facial recognition refers to the processing of facial images for the purposes of identification, verification of identity or analysis. Facial recognition technology facilitates the violation of fundamental rights. Use of this technology on citizens, which is non-consensual in most cases, can lead to unfettered biometric data collection resulting in state sponsored mass surveillance. This data could further be misused to hamper exercise of fundamental rights such as the right to privacy, life & liberty as well as having a chilling effect on the rights to freedom of speech & expression and peaceful assembly & protest.
The actions of the Union and State government authorities deploying this technology violate the decision of the Hon'ble Supreme Court in KS Puttaswamy v UOI in which any state intrusion into citizen privacy needs to fulfil the threshold of legality, necessity and proportionality. FRT has been and continues to be in use in Bengaluru in the absence of any legal framework to regulate it and to protect against misuse. However, citizens of Bengaluru remain in the dark about this threat to their fundamental rights as these surveillance systems are being put in place by government authorities who claim that this will increase security.
However, there is no evidence to support this claim. On the contrary, studies have shown that facial recognition is prone to error and has on more than one occasion led to the wrongful arrest of innocent individuals by law enforcement authorities.
FRT projects in Bengaluru
A. Bengaluru Police
The Bengaluru Police, in conjunction with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), is launching the 'Safe City' Project in the city. The project is being launched under the Nirbhaya Fund which is administered by the Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance. The Ministry of Women & Child Development is the nodal authority for approving projects under the fund. The cost of the Project is being shared in a 60:40 ratio between the Bengaluru Police and MHA. The project aims to
- create a safe, secure and empowering environment for women in public places;
- to enable them to pursue all opportunities without the threat of gender-based violence and/or harassment;
- prevent and curb all forms of crimes against women and girl children in public places by providing safer urban infrastructure; and
- provide efficient access to law enforcement agencies.
In his budget speech on February 17, 2023, the Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai stated that a grant of 261 Crore INR has been made for the completion of the Nirbhaya Scheme in 2023, under which 4,100 cameras have already been installed in 1,640 places. To gather more information about the project we filed Right to Information (RTI) requests with the MHA, Karnataka Law Department and the Bengaluru Police. The MHA, in their reply dated March 29, 2022, has stated that, "information on any use of facial recognition system by States/UTs, including State policy in this regard, is not maintained centrally".
Ongoing project by Thejesh GN mapping CCTV cameras in Bengaluru
However, we did not receive any response from the Bengaluru Police. Thereafter, we redrafted the RTI requests, which were refiled with the Bengaluru Police locally. Through responses dated July 20, 2022, the Bengaluru Police has provided us with answers to some of our queries.
The Bengaluru Police cites the Police Manual as the legal authority on the basis of which they are using facial recognition. However, they have not mentioned the specific provision of the Manual which authorises them to use the technology. The photographs used for the technology are sourced from the suspect photographs from CCTV footage of crime scenes and is matched against photographs obtained from the City Crime Record Bureau of Bengaluru City. Access is provided to Police Sub Inspectors (PSI) and Officers of Command & Control who rank above. In their response the Bengaluru Police also state that they have not conducted any cost-benefit analysis, feasibility study, privacy impact assessment, or any other quality assessments.
The Bengaluru Police has also shared a copy of a supply/work order dated June 17, 2017 as an annexure with the responses. The work order is addressed to Matrix Security and Surveillance Pvt. Ltd. In the work order, the bill of quantities states that the total amount for the purchase of the facial recognition system is INR 1,06,05,000 (One crore six lakh and five thousand rupees), while the total amount spent on the setting up of the command and control centre for the first year is INR 4,36,85,000 (Four crore thirty-six lakhs eighty-five thousand rupees).
The requirements for the facial recognition system include the ability to capture facial images from live CCTV footage, searching for matches based on facial features from the supporting database, matching facial images with pre-recorded video feeds obtained from CCTVs deployed in certain “critical” identified locations in the city and from video feeds obtained from private or other public organisations. The system is also required to generate alerts if a “blacklist” match is found. However, it is unclear how this “blacklist” has been created, who has been included in it and on what basis, and what would be the next step of action when such alerts are generated.
Read the NewsMinute’s story on Bengaluru Police’s surveillance project here.
B. Bengaluru Airport
In 2019, the Ministry of Civil Aviation announced its plan to launch a facial recognition-based passenger processing system at the Bengaluru airport. Subsequently, on December 1, 2022 DigiYatra was launched at the Bengaluru airport. The project is for the purpose of authenticating the identity of passengers. As per a response in the Lok Sabha by the Minister of State in the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Gen. (Dr) V. K. Singh (Retd) dated February 2, 2023, M/s Dataevolve Solutions has built FRT based Digi Yatra Central Ecosystem. It is being carried out under the DigiYatra Policy with an initiative to provide seamless experience to passengers right from entry to the airport up to boarding the aircraft. Flyers will get their DigiYatra ID upon sharing their personal details like name, email ID, mobile number, and one approved identity proof. Once the DigiYatra ID is created, a passenger will have to undergo a one-time verification at the departure airport during their first travel. The facial biometric of the passenger is captured after successful verification of the identity. As per the government, the intended benefits of this policy are:
Uniform implementation and passenger experience across Indian airports through a connected ecosystem;
Better resource planning as the airport operator will have travel information in advance;
Less congestion due to real-time data of passengers within the terminal;
Improved airport security.
However, we are not convinced. The DigiYatra policy presents privacy risks of profiling and data exploitation without any remedies or regulatory framework. It does not have any legal backing as it is untethered to any policy or legal framework and thereby is unenforceable. Convenience cannot be justified as a necessary restriction on privacy.
Hence, we filed an RTI request with the Airport Authority of India on March 7, 2022. In response to our question on whether any legal opinion was sought for procuring FRT, the authority said "Digi Yatra Policy has been drafted with due consultation with various stakeholders from GOI, including MoCA, BCAS, CISF, UIDAI, IB, MHA and others". In terms of data storage and persons/organisations allowed to operate and use FRT, the authority said it is a "system-driven technology and no access is provided to any employee to download or save any face biometric or Personally Identifiable Data". "The data is purged after the defined duration of time as directed by the Digi Yatra Policy", i.e. 1 hour after the passenger's flight departure. Read the entire response here. (Read more about the DigiYatra Scheme here)
C. Bengaluru Railway station
Through a press release dated January 9, 2020, the South Western Railway (one of the 18 railway zones under the Indian Railways) announced the pilot project of face recognition software being implemented in KSR Bengaluru (commonly known as 'City Railway Station'). The project aims to "create a digital perimeter over Indian Railways and identify criminals entering the railway station...without disrupting the traffic flow in and out of stations". As per the government release, the technology developed succeeded in 100% acquisition of faces and 100% matching with accuracy. It also said the railways may start digital attendance of station staff through FRT.
As per a media report, a total of 157 cameras have been installed across the station premises at a cost of Rs 2.4 Crore. The AI-enabled cameras are also advertised as being able to identify people wearing masks. While the authorities try reassuring citizens by saying only criminals should worry about this technology, it fails to acknowledge that FRT deployment at a railway station amounts to mass surveillance. Mass surveillance subjects people to indiscriminate monitoring by systematically interfering with people's right to privacy and all the rights that privacy enables, including the freedom to express yourself and protest.
Hence, we filed an RTI request with the South Western Railway on the use of facial recognition in KSR Bengaluru station on March 9, 2022. We sought details on various aspects of the FRT, including the legal backing, cost-benefit analysis, third-party and privacy impact assessments, accuracy data, and tender. By claiming exemptions under Section 2 (f) and 8 (a) of the RTI Act, 2005 on most questions, the authority did not provide the required information. Read the entire response here.
D. Bengaluru Metro
In March 2022, the Ministry of Urban Development floated a tender for facial recognition technology-based attendance system for the Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Ltd. The purpose of the project is to authenticate the identity of staff members, making it a highly invasive method of staff monitoring. Here the system captures the facial images of a single individual and compares it to an existing image provided by the individuals, giving them entry access. This is called one-to-one matching. While this use of FRT is not as dangerous as live monitoring using FRT, it still raises privacy concerns as people are forced to part with extremely personal biometric information. Further, it also leads to data security and safety concerns as data breaches involving facial recognition data increase the potential for identity theft, stalking, and harassment.
Artwork by Fakirboi and Kyra De Sousa