NEW DELHI: (Web Desk) – When artist Rachita Taneja heads out to protest in New Delhi, she covers her face with a pollution mask, a hoodie or a scarf to reduce the risk of being identified by police facial recognition software.
Police in the Indian capital and the northern state of Uttar Pradesh – both hotbeds of dissent – have used the technology during protests that have raged since mid-December against a new citizenship law that critics say marginalises Muslims.
Activists are worried about insufficient regulation around the new technology, amid what they say is a crackdown on dissent under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist agenda has gathered pace since his re-election in May.
“I do not know what they are going to do with my data,” said Taneja, 28, who created a popular online cartoon about cheap ways for protesters to hide their faces. “We need to protect ourselves, given how this government cracks down.”
Critics also accuse authorities of secrecy – highlighting, for instance, that the software’s use during Delhi protests was first revealed by the Indian Express newspaper.
But police said worries about facial recognition were unwarranted.
“I’m only catching targeted people,” said Rajan Bhagat, a deputy commissioner of police at Delhi’s Crime Records Office. “We don’t have any protesters’ data, nor do we plan to store it.”
He declined to give details of potential arrests, however.
When it comes to surveillance, India trails far behind neighbouring China. New Delhi, for example, has about 0.9 CCTV cameras for every 100 people, versus about 11.3 per 100 in China’s commercial hub of Shanghai, a 2019 report by PreciseSecurity.com showed.
Despite the concerns, law enforcement across India could soon be using facial recognition technology.
Modi’s government is seeking bids to create a nationwide database, the National Automated Facial Recognition System, to help match images captured from CCTV cameras with existing databases, including those of passport and police authorities.
The system will boost police efficiency, says the National Crime Records Bureau, which launched the tender that closes at the end of March.
But critics say it puts India on the path to China-style mass surveillance.