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Personal privacy vs public safety: Balance needed

Updated October 6, 2020 12:30 IST
People are seen on the Red Square in Moscow, Russia (Xinhua/Evgeny Sinitsyn/IANS)

From trams to underground trains to the entrances of the apartment buildings, Russia is expanding the use of facial recognition software beyond capital Moscow by installing CCTV cameras in 10 other cities of the country. The government’s move to conduct mass surveillance is apparently aimed at public safety and security. However, as has been witnessed in Moscow over the last one year, the privacy rights groups and digital rights lawyers have already initiated legal action against the expansion of facial recognition technology. Activists have even challenged it at the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that it will enable law enforcement agencies to access practically any data in the name of protecting public safety.

Organizations like Human Rights Watch have reported how the facial recognition technology has been used extensively in Moscow, including at protest rallies where the participants had to pass through metal detectors equipped with CCTV cameras installed at eye level. This enabled the authorities to gather data about the protestors and conduct mass surveillance, a move which has been labeled as “invasive” and a huge “threat to privacy” by rights experts.

Now, close your eyes and imagine something of this sort happening in India. Unlike Russia, installation of CCTV cameras with facial recognition software in public places would, in all probability, be a welcome move in a city like Delhi. Hundreds of cameras recording your every move from home till office, from a DTC bus to a Metro train, all the whereabouts being monitored just as it is shown in the Hollywood flicks. How much longer till we get there?

Just before the Covid-19 pandemic stalled the world, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy in a written reply to a question regarding Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) in Rajya Sabha this March, had said that approval has been accorded for its implementation by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

The Minister stated that the AFRS will use police records and will be accessible only to law enforcement agencies. This will facilitate better identification of criminals, unidentified dead bodies and missing/found children and persons. “It will not violate privacy,” he made it clear.

Public safety is paramount in a country as vast and populated as India (IANS)

It shouldn’t be a huge bother even if it did slightly, as long as it remains in the safe hands of Indian agencies. Indians are used to getting several unsolicited messages, calls, mails every day. Public safety, not personal data, matters the most in a country as vast and populated as India. Yes, the ‘risk of abuse’ would always be there. Isn’t it high time that we had an integrated system with the sole aim of providing safety to residents?

Last year, during a workshop to highlight the increased use of biometrics and advance technologies by police around the world, Sanjay Mathur, Joint Director, Crime and Criminal Tracking Networks and System (CCTNS) and NCRB, clarified the doubts related to security breach, reliability and privacy of individuals while implementing AFRS in India.

He said that AFRS of NCRB will not work on public databases and that its scope is to use CCTNS database which is secured and not available in public domain. AFRS will be a tool to aid investigating officers as part of CCTNS application, he had assured.

At present the investigation officer manually compares the photographs maintained in a police station in the form of albums and dossier of offenders involved in previous cases with that of suspects/accused in the case under investigations. AFRS automates this matching process and provides a bigger set for comparison, as it will be run on a state/national level CCTNS/ICJS database. He however made it clear that AFRS will not source facial images from CCTV cameras in public places, unless the video footage is part of a scene of crime.

India in December 2019 had also become the first country in the world to issue Biometric Seafarers Identity Document (BSID) capturing the facial biometric data of seafarers. The document gave foolproof identification to our seafarers which will facilitate their movement across countries, providing ease of getting jobs and also helping in identification at any location in the world.

We are inching closer and the day isn’t far when we’ll have in Lajpat Nagar the kind of facility that the Russians have in Moscow. Invasive? Naah, just as I write this, the private security guard of our residential complex rang the doorbell. He has a register in his hand and wants to jot down the phone number, email of every flat resident in the building. “The RWA (Resident Welfare Association) office bearers have ordered us to undertake this exercise for the impending society elections,” he says.

There goes the ‘data privacy’ for a toss!

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