Earlier this month, New Delhi’s airport became the nation’s fourth to test a new use case for facial recognition technology: A system that will allow passengers to board flights after a machine scans their faces. The technology being piloted in New Delhi is expected to appear in all of India’s major airports over the next few years. The goal of the program was first spelled out in a government document last year is the creation of a “Digi Yatra” or “Digital Journey” for travelers nationwide.
This is by no means the first instance of facial recognition tech in the country. Facial recognition technology is now up and running across India via a wide-ranging patchwork of facial recognition systems used at police stations, malls, and schools. Some of those schemes run on technology from one of the dozens of private providers in the market.
Proponents in the government and private sectors note that the wide use of facial recognition technology — particularly when paired with India’s national biometric ID system — is critical to both the Indian economy’s entry into the modern digital era of financial services and commerce and protecting citizen and national security. Opponents argue that facial recognition, biometric national ID and India’s relatively weak personal data privacy law when combined will always result in the same thing: A system that isn’t built to benefit or protect citizens but to consolidate more central control of them.
And while the argument has grown particularly pointed in India of late, it is not unique to them. As the technology improves and becomes both more effective and cheaper to deploy, there is an increasing concern among people worldwide that the face they put out there to the public is becoming public property to a disturbing degree.
The Intensifying Indian situation
India has been an enthusiastic and proactive early adopter in its embrace of biometric technology for authentication consumers. Aadhaar launched in 2016 and remains the world’s largest national biometric ID system. And among opponents of the expansion of facial recognition technology are those concerned that when paired up with Aadhaar — a national embrace of facial recognition data gather indiscriminately in public, could present a genuine issue for citizens.
Of particular concern is the ongoing creation of the country’s first centralized facial recognition surveillance system for India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). That project, which is currently accepting bids, will create a vast database of citizen faces that will be shared with more than a dozen other databases.
According to a bid document that the NCRB published, the objectives of the National Intelligence Grid system are to “[modernize] the police force, information gathering, criminal identification, verification and its dissemination among various police organizations and units across the country.” What that would mean in practical terms, according to Buzzfeed, is the creation of a single master database that would link together stand-alone databases containing tax records, bank details, credit card transactions, air and train travel records and more. Whether Aadhaar will be one of the connected databases remains an open question.
There is also concern it will be and will ipso facto create an invasive surveillance state able to keep real-time tabs on India’s roughly 1.3 billion citizens. Specifically, there are concerns that the system could lead to a deeper crackdown on specific citizen populations within India.
“I think [the centralized facial recognition system] will fundamentally change how surveillance is carried out in India,” said Vidushi Marda, a lawyer and a research analyst at Carnegie India who studies how police across the country use facial recognition, told Buzzfeed. “I know the [government’s] pitch is ‘safety,’ ‘security,’ and ‘crime prevention,’ but it’s actually a surveillance mechanism.”
He noted that facial recognition is an incredible concern — because of the finality associated with it. Even if one went to the extremes of getting extensive plastic surgery to change what one’s face looks like, the system is meant to correct for modifications made by plastic surgery, age, scars, tattoos, beards and makeup so would not necessarily deliver the desired outcome.
These systems also reportedly pull data from sketches, footage from CCTV cameras, as well as images from public or private video feeds to use them to “generate alerts if a blacklist match is found,” according to the NCRB bid document.
Amba Kak, director of global strategy and programs at New York University’s AI Now Institute, says that everyone has to get on the same page concerning what facial recognition technology is when it deployed at scale in every public place. A reckoning is coming, he said, regarding when and when not to use this tech form factor.
The Global Conversation
India, for a variety of socio-political reasons, is a unique locus for this debate to be taking place — but the discussion itself is not unusual. In the last year, a lot of tough questions have been raised about when and where facial recognition tech can be appropriately deployed — and what rights consumers have to their privacy even when presenting a public face.
In the U.K. this week, London metropolitan police are facing public criticism for using the extensive facial recognition technology that was installed in London’s King Cross district during a GBP3 billion regeneration project. The controversy is twofold. First, the developer of the popular tourist destination neglected to mention that it was deploying facial recognition tech in its CCTV camera system, which has triggered a probe from British regulators. Secondly, there also is some concern as to how the metropolitan police made use of the system.
Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on China’s advanced system of advanced facial recognition technology to track and control the Uighurs minority group in the western region of the country. This, the report noted, is a remarkably easy task for the tech — because Turkish ethnic Uighurs look physically different from China’s majority Han population and are thus easily picked out by the tech. According to the Times, that technology has been used in service of things like putting Uighurs into forced labor and re-education camps.
When one imagines that kind of use in a place like India, NYU’s Amba Kak noted, the implications rapidly get very alarming.
“Can you use facial recognition to detect things like caste or religion? Given the [polarized] political situation in India, that would be our dystopia,” he noted.
And while the concerns in the U.S. are not anywhere near as dystopic — they do exist and are getting contentious. Since 2016, Detroit city police have been building out an interconnected network of high-definition surveillance cameras that stream live video from gas stations, liquor stores and other all-night businesses to a central police command center. Facial recognition tech would be used to screen the images. While the program has been incredibly contentious, it has moved forward.
“What happens when this software misidentifies one single person that doesn’t have the resources for a good legal defense?” asked Willie Burton, an elected member of Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners, a civilian body that oversees the police department.
Detroit’s police have responded they’re only using facial recognition technology to identify suspects in violent crimes — not to spy on ordinary citizens. And business owners who have been part of the pilot noted that just having the cameras there, and there being public knowledge of what they do, has been a significant boon in a city that also has the reputation of being crime-ridden.
“We don’t have the trouble that we used to have,” noted Detroit gas station owner Nasser Beydoun. “There’s an element that used to come to the station to cause problems that no longer shows up.”
Flash to a different part of the U.S., however, and the outlook changes quite radically. Earlier this year, San Francisco officials voted to prohibit the use of facial recognition technology by city workers. The rule also called on city agencies to submit their policies for surveillance technology so the public could review them and provide comments.
Interestingly, the U.S. public seems a bit less concerned about the issue than San Francisco’s City Commission. According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans said they are comfortable with using biometrics to confirm their identities in airports because of safety issues and convenience.
Moreover, the survey showed 42 percent said they’re open to biometrics because they think it’ll make flights safer and help with terrorism prevention; 35 percent said biometrics are more reliable than legacy forms of identification like licenses; 33 percent believe authorities should know the people who are in airports at all times; and 32 percent would support the tech if it got them through the airport faster.
The challenge, it seems, is the technology and its use cases have gotten ahead of both the public subject to it and the governments and private entities that want to leverage it, but as yet are not sure what and where the limits ought to be. What is clear, an increasing number of experts are seeing — is that the era of uncertainty around this topic is due to end and a serious conversation on facial recognition and limits is in order.
“I wouldn’t make a distinction in using surveillance tech for good and bad, and facial recognition technology is, by nature, surveillance technology. Experiences globally have borne out that [surveillance] is the primary use of this technology, and if it is being deployed, I think we need to have a robust public conversation about it before deployment.
In India, I think we’ve already missed the bus on that,” Amba Kak noted.