India used facial recognition tech to identify 1,100 individuals at a recent riot

Manish Singh
A closed-circuit television (CCTV) security camera operates on a lamppost at Rajpath boulevard in New Delhi, India, on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. India is planning to set up one of the world's largest facial recognition systems, potentially a lucrative opportunity for surveillance companies and a nightmare for privacy advocates who fear it will lead to a Chinese-style Orwellian state. Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Law enforcement agencies in India used facial recognition to identify more than 1,100 individuals who allegedly took part in communal violence in the national capital last month, a top minister said in the lower house of the parliament on Wednesday.

In what is the first admission of its kind in the country, Amit Shah, India’s home minister, said the law enforcement agencies deployed a facial recognition system, and fed it with images from government-issued identity cards, driving licenses, and “other databases,” to identify alleged culprits in the communal violence in northeast Delhi on February 25 and 26.

“This is a software. It does not see faith. It does not see clothes. It only sees the face and through the face the person is caught,” said Shah, responding to an individual who had urged New Delhi to not drag innocent people into the facial surveillance.

The admission further demonstrates how the Indian government has rushed to deploy facial recognition technology in the absence of regulation overseeing its usage. Critics have urged the government to hold consultations and formulate a law before deploying the technology.

“The use of Aadhaar for this purpose without any judicial authorisation violates the judgement of the Supreme Court in KS Puttaswamy v. UoI (2019),” said New Delhi-based digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, which also questioned the sophistication of the facial recognition system.

The facial recognition system that the government used in Delhi was first acquired by the Delhi Police to identify missing children. In 2019, the system had an accuracy rate of 1% and it even failed to distinguish between boys and girls, the group said.

“All of this is being done without any clear underlying legal authority and is in clear violation of the Right to Privacy judgment (that the Indian apex court upheld in 2017),” said Apar Gupta, executive director at IFF. “Facial recognition technology is still evolving and the risks of such evolutionary tech being used in policing are significant,” said Gupta.

Several law enforcement agencies have been using facial recognition for years now. In January and early February, police in New Delhi and the northern state of Uttar Pradesh used the technology during protests against a new citizenship law that critics say marginalises Muslims.