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Vol. XXXII No. 18, January 1-15, 2023

City police tap into Facial Recognition Technology to the alarm of people and politicians alike

-- by A Special Correspondent

Technology is playing an increasingly important role in administering the city, if you notice. This year alone, Chennai has used many tech-based solutions to solve a swathe of civic problems – March saw the usage of drones to spray water bodies with mosquito larvicide, October’s scramble to complete stormwater drain work leveraged precast technology, and November unveiled a real-time flood forecasting software. The latest bit of civic tech, however, has not been universally welcomed – a facial recognition system in use by the city police.

The controversy began when a gentleman tweeted about his brush with the new process. He was stopped in Nanganallur, he complained, only for the policeman to snap a picture of him before sending him along his way. The official police handle responded to the account explaining that FRS – Facial Recognition System – was in use in the city at night to identify criminals and assured him that there was nothing to worry about. What followed was a rush of concerns voiced by common people, experts and politicians alike about the legality of the procedure and data-privacy vulnerabilities. The Sivaganga Lok Sabha MP Karti P. Chidambaram reportedly delivered an official letter to the Chennai city police commissioner questioning the process, claiming it to be in violation of the fundamental right to privacy upheld by the Supreme Court in the Puttuswamy case. He wrote, “In the absence of legal provisions and safeguards that clearly lay down the FRT (facial recognition technology) regime, the use of such systems is illegal.” He isn’t alone – the Lok Sabha MP from Villupuram, D. Ravikumar, wrote a letter to CM M.K. Stalin as well, pointing out that “… free consent can also not be given as it is difficult to refuse something when demanded by someone in as high a position of authority as the police.”

Police authorities, however, stand firm that they are within bounds as far as FRT is concerned. The ADGP of the State Crime Records Bureau, Vinit Dev Wankhede, said that the Criminal Identification Act allows them to photograph individuals, adding that it is “a prevention and detection tool rather than a prosecution tool.” According to reports, the FRS used by the TN police contains in its database around 6.6 lakh photographs of known wrong-doers. The system is said to have come into force earlier in November with the aim of identifying suspects who are absconding or have jumped bail.

It is arguable that the lack of a proactive awareness campaign has exacerbated citizen concerns. Knowledge of the new process stems largely from the complaint posted on social media and has, as such, been discussed only in the context of the controversy. There is also little clarity about the storage of such photos collected by the police – while authorities have been clear that such media cannot be used in trials, there has been little explanation about how the photos of innocents are dealt with after processing. Surely there are enough precedents to have served as cautionary tales – the Aadhar project is a good example, with many vociferous opponents stemming from TN itself. The police claim that photographs captured for the use of FRT are not stored in the system, but it is a well-known fact that digital media almost never disappears completely. Given that the Aadhar initiative – also one built on the basis of capturing citizens’ biometric data – has suffered alarming data leaks, the people deserve a detailed understanding of the FRT process used to police the city.

It is important to note that FRT is not the only tool with which the authorities are expanding their gaze. Recent media reports announced the plan to acquire a drone unit that will enable the city ­police to surveil neighbourhoods which are less patrolled or unpatrollable. It was explained that the drone would fly across the city skies to deliver a live feed to the ­control unit, ­enabling the supervision of crime zones presently out of patrol reach. The camera fitted to the drone, it was announced, has night-vision capabilities and can zoom 10 times onto the objects or people below. It is also equipped with a Public Address System to chase people from remote locations. This particular piece of news did not carry controversy, perhaps because of a few key differences from the current FRT furore – one, the press covered the news as an official announcement, educating the people about the project and its purpose; two, a flying drone is not as personally invasive as a policeman clicking snaps of individual citizens; and three, the usage was clearly communicated to be geared towards anti-social elements, underlining its utility as a protective tool rather than an invasive tool. But for the handling of the subject, it is arguable that both this and FRT occupy the same legal and moral space.

There is a case to be made that communal good trumps individual privacy as long as personal rights are not ­superseded. Objectively, then, it is the legal system that the citizens should be petitioning, to draft amendments that ­protect constitutional rights in the face of new developments. The wheels of the law turn slowly, however, and past experience suggests that legal measures are considered only after the damage is done. As it stands, it is only fair that new measures are held back until the law can catch up with them. This would make the police and citizens partners in urging the legal system towards better, faster service. Perhaps this is the change we need.

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