[Editorial] Police’s Use of Facial Recognition Technology

What is facial recognition technology?

  • Facial recognition technology is a system that matches a human face from an image or video frame against a database of human faces. It does this by identifying and measuring facial features.
  • Such a technology identifies the distinct features of a human face and creates a biometric map. This map is then matched to possible individuals in a database using algorithms.

What is the status of this technology in India?

  • Facial recognition technology and similar surveillance technologies are being bankrolled by government programs like Smart City, Nirbhaya Fund and Safe City.
  • Hyderabad has been collecting photographs of its residents to develop an FRT database. This database is to be used in combination with its increasing network of CCTV cameras.
  • More than 6 lakh CCTV cameras have been installed across the city. These are to be connected to a real-time network that is to be managed by the Command and Control Centre.
  • The city is building an Rs 800 crore Integrated Police Command Control Centre in Banjara Hills. This is to enable the police to access real-time footage of the city from the camera network.
  • This centre will be undertaking surveillance practices like social media analysis capabilities and data analytics.
  • In 2020, the plan to set up a National Automated Facial Recognition System was approved by the Indian government. It is to be led by the National Crime Records Bureau.
  • The Delhi police made use of FRT for making arrests during the 2019 riots.
  • The technology was also deployed for making over 200 arrests during the protests against farm reforms.

Why is it a source of concern?

  • Such surveillance is a technological infringement on people’s human rights. In 2017, the Supreme Court recognized the right to privacy as a fundamental right under the right to life and liberty.
  • To find a match, the system searches through millions of images that have been collected without the knowledge or consent of the people. eg: In Hyderabad, the police stopped civilians on the road and collected their photographs in an invasive undertaking.
  • The exercise in Hyderabad has invited criticism over reports of random frisking of civilians and illegal cordon-and-search operations.
  • Deploying such technologies in the absence of a legal framework for data protection means that our public spaces are blindly being converted into technological experimentation sites. This means that human rights get side-lined for the sake of profit and control.
  • Such surveillance and data collection are going on unchecked even as the proposed Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 stagnates in the Parliament.
  • A lot of public money is being spent on these technologies under the guise of protecting children and women. However, their effectiveness has no evidence and could simply end up squandering public funds
  • It is known for failing often. There are also evidences that FRT systems display racial and gender bias.
  • There are concerns that the operation will entrench and automate policing practices that are problematic and discriminatory.
  • It is seen as a chilling attempt by the state to control the lives of citizens using technology.

What is the way ahead?

  • The use of this technology is under severe scrutiny by various jurisdictions around the world. Some, like Luxembourg and Belgium, have already banned the use of facial recognition technology.
  • The EU is set to pass a comprehensive ban on this technology.
  • In the USA, bans and moratoria have been imposed at multiple city- and state-levels.
  • Even Facebook has announced that it would be closing down its facial recognition program.
  • Over 200 organizations have called for a ban on the use of biometric surveillance technologies that aid discriminatory mass surveillance.
  • However, the technology continues to be acquired and deployed by police units in India.
  • A law is required to regulate data collection and to serve as a, oversight mechanism before such invasive technologies are deployed.
  • Currently, the human rights violation resulting from their use far outweighs the purported benefits that these technologies claim to have.


Hyderabad’s surveillance policing model raises significant human rights concerns. It also motivates other states’ police departments and the intelligence agencies to undertake similar projects.

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