Facial Recognition Threatens Your Human Rights
In Hyderabad, Telangana state, the government has initiated the construction of a “command and control centre” (CCC), 1 a building that connects the city’s vast CCTV infrastructure in real time. 2 Situated in Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills area, the CCC supports the processing of data from up to 600,000 cameras at once with the possibility to increase beyond this scope across Hyderabad city, Rachakonda, and Cyberabad.
Hyderabad City in Telangana state is already ranked as one of the most surveilled cities in the world. 3 4 5 6 Yet, the government has initiated the construction of a “command and control centre” (CCC), a building that connects the city’s vast CCTV infrastructure in real time. Situated in Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills area, the CCC reportedly supports the processing of data from up to 600,000 cameras at once with the possibility to increase beyond this scope across Hyderabad city, Rachakonda, and Cyberabad. 7 These cameras can be used in combination with Hyderabad police’s existing facial recognition cameras to track and identify individuals across space.
Amnesty International, Internet Freedom Foundation, and Article 19’s research unearthed documents by Hyderabad Police disclosing the technical specification of their cameras, which have the capability of capturing imagery from at minimum 2 megapixels and upwards. 8 In practice, this means the cameras have a field of vision with a radius of at least 30 meters.
With the help of a group of Telangana-based volunteers, we mapped the locations of immediately visible outdoor CCTV infrastructure in two sampled neighbourhoods – Kala Pathar and Kishan Bagh, surveying areas of approximately 988,123.5 square meters and 764,207.8542 square meters, respectively. Based on this data, our analysis estimated that in these two neighbourhoods at least 530,864 and 513,683 square meters, respectively, was surveilled by CCTV cameras – that’s 53.7% and 62.7% of the total area covered by volunteers.
In addition to earlier deployments of facial recognition capable devices beyond CCTV cameras, such as tablets and other “smart” cameras, the construction of the Command and Control Centre risks supercharging the already rampant rights-eroding practice, with no regulation in place to protect civilians.
Given that the Indian authorities have a record 9 of using facial recognition tools in contexts where people’s human rights are at stake, such as to enforce lockdown measures, 10 identify voters in municipal elections, 11 and – in other states in India – police protests, 12 the CCC is a worrying development. 13 There is currently no safeguarding legislation which would protect the privacy of the citizens of Hyderabad, nor a law which would regulate the use of remote biometric surveillance, which further exacerbates the danger these technologies present increase. In such a situation, the deployment and use of this technology is harmful and must be stopped.
Even without the CCC, Telangana state has in recent years been the site of increased usage of dangerous facial recognition technologies against civilians, and according to a study by the Internet Freedom Foundation, uses the highest number of facial recognition projects in India. 9
Using open source intelligence, in this case publicly available videos from twitter and news sites, Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps discovered dozens of purported incidents filmed from November 2019 to July 2021 showing Hyderabad police using tablets to photograph civilians in the streets, while refusing to explain why. In one case, an alleged offender was subject to unexplained biometric conscription. 15 Other cases have shown the random solicitation of both facial and fingerprint reads from civilians. 16
In May 2021, videos purportedly showed Hyderabad police asking civilians to, inexplicably, remove their masks, to obtain a biometric capture on an accompanying tablet.
Under the Identification of Prisoners Act of 1920, it is not permitted to take photographs of persons by police, unless arrested or convicted of a crime – neither is the sharing of such photographs with other law enforcement agencies. As the IFF have already stated, photographic capture following mask removal of civilians by police, in this case, would be considered a violation. 17 The IFF, together with Article 19 and Amnesty International, are concerned that these tablets may be equipped with facial recognition software, against the backdrop of its increased usage by law enforcement.
When biometric surveillance is deployed for as diverse contexts as municipal elections, Covid-19 restriction compliance and unexplained stop and frisk, there’s a slippery slope towards the complete surveillance of civic life, threatening our human rights to privacy, freedom of assembly, autonomy and dignity. 18
Who Is Behind Facial Recognition In India?
Meanwhile, the vendors of facial recognition technologies to government agencies in India have remained woefully quiet. Amnesty reached out to the following companies to ask about their known facial recognition related activities in India, and to request they share any human rights policies they may have:
- IDEMIA – For the deployment of the VisionPass system, for controlling contactless access under the conditions of COVID-19, using facial recognition. 19
- NEC India – It has been widely reported that NEC India provided Surat City Police in Gujarat with NEC’s NeoFace Reveal and NeoFace Watch facial recognition products in 2015. 20 More recently, the company was awarded contracts for providing facial recognition products at airports, including in Varanasi, Vijayawada, Pune and Kolkata. 21 This also comes after the company announced that its facial recognition algorithms were capable of identifying faces, even while wearing facemasks. 22
- Staqu – Staqu is known to have sold facial recognition technologies to law enforcement in at least eight states, including Uttar Pradesh – a state in which facial recognition was deployed by the police against anti-CAA protestors – as part of the Police Artificial Intelligence System. 23
- Vision-Box – Vision Box is known to be developing facial recognition products to be used in combination with a digital health pass system in India. 24 The company is already known for providing facial recognition technologies towards “paperless” travel at Delhi International Airport Limited. 25
- INNEFU Labs – Innefu Labs has sold facial recognition technologies to law enforcement in New Delhi, India, as part of the police’s Advanced Facial Recognition System (AFRS). 26 Innefu documents this particular relationship in a case study available on its website. 27 In Amnesty International’s letter from 25 September 2020, we already inquired about Innefu’s sales of surveillance tools to government agencies, as well as its human rights due diligence. In Innefu’s response, the company noted that it did not in fact have a stated human rights policy.
Out of the companies listed, only INNEFU responded to the letter, originally dated July 2021, stating that ‘the user agency is not under any obligation to adhere to any terms and conditions of the vendor’, without granting further responses to any of the 14 questions posed by Amnesty. Furthermore, in an earlier letter responding to questions by Amnesty for another investigation, the company made it clear that it did not have a “stated human rights policy”, but that it was in fact ‘follow[ing] the Indian laws and guidelines’.
Under international standards, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, 28 all companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, meaning they must have a human rights policy in place, and take steps to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for the risks to human rights posed by their operations and any risks they are linked to through their business relationships, products or services. Facial recognition technology inherently poses a high risk to human rights, and these five vendors have failed to demonstrate they are adequately addressing and mitigating the risks of providing this technology to government agencies