India is trying to build the world’s largest facial recognition system

India is trying to build the world’s largest facial recognition system

In July, Bhuwan Ribhu received very good news.

The child labor activist, who works for the Indian NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan, launched a 15-month pilot program before matching a police database containing photographs of all missing Indian children with another consisting of photographs of all minors who live in the country’s childcare. institution.

He just knew the result. “We were able to match 10,561 missing children with those living in institutions,” he told CNN. “They are now in the process of being reunited with their families.” Most of them are victims of trafficking, forced to work in farms, in garment factories or in brothels, according to Ribhu.

This important effort is made possible by the facial recognition technology provided by the New Delhi police. “There are over 300,000 missing children in India and over 100,000 living in institutions,” he explained. “We couldn’t possibly match everything manually.”

Tracking down thousands of missing children is just one of the challenges facing India’s overstretched police force in a country of 1.37 billion people.

India has only 144 police officers per 100,000 citizens, compared to 318 per 100,000 citizens in the European Union. In recent years, authorities have turned to facial recognition technology to make up for the shortfall.

New Delhi’s law enforcement agency adopted the technology in 2018, and it is also used to police large events and fight crime in a handful of other states, including Andhra Pradesh and Punjab.

But the Indian government now has more ambitious plans. It wants to build one of the largest facial recognition systems in the world. The project envisions a future where police from across the country’s 29 states and seven union territories will have access to one centralized database.

National database
The daunting scope of the proposed network is laid out in a detailed 172-page document published by the National Criminal Records Bureau, which solicited bids from companies to build the project. Interested parties have until October 11 to submit their proposals.

Currently unnamed, the project will match images from the country’s growing network of CCTV cameras with a database that includes mugshots of criminals, passport photos and images collected by agencies such as the Ministry of Women and Child Development.

The platform will also allow searches based on photos uploaded from newspapers, images sent by the public or artist sketches of suspected criminals. It will also recognize faces on closed-circuit cameras and “generate an alert if a blacklist match is found,” according to tender documents.

Security forces will be equipped with hand-held mobile devices that will allow them to capture faces in the field and search them instantly against national databases, through a dedicated application.

New facial recognition platforms “could play a very important role in improving outcomes” when it comes to identifying criminals, missing persons and dead bodies, according to a document published by the National Crime Records Bureau. It will also help police forces “detect criminal patterns” and help in crime prevention, he added.

India’s crime rate is high, especially in poor inner-city areas. In 2016, there were 709.1 offenses per 100,000 people in 19 major cities, compared to a national average of 379.3, according to the latest official figures.

An Indian technician checks CCTV cameras on the side of the road near the Presidential Palace in preparation for the country’s Republic Day parade taking place in New Delhi.

A foreign company
It is not known how many companies have submitted bids to install India’s national facial recognition system, nor how long the government will take to consider their applications.

About 80 vendor representatives participated in the pre-bid meeting, which took place at the National Crime Records Bureau’s Delhi office in late July, according to meeting minutes seen by CNN. They discussed how the national database would be integrated with local police platforms and whether it should be able to identify people who have undergone plastic surgery.

“To be eligible to bid, a company has to complete at least three facial recognition projects around the world,” explained Apar Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation, an NGO that has submitted a legal notice to cancel the call for bids. “This disqualifies most Indian companies.”

The successful bidder is most likely to be a consortium of foreign companies and local partners — another requirement is that at least one of the bidders is based in India.

IBM ( IBM ), Hewlett-Packard Enterprise ( HPE ) and Accenture ( ACN ) have all shown interest, according to Sivarama Krishnan, who heads cyber security at PricewaterhouseCoopers India. CNN reached out to all three companies, but none of them were available to comment.

Having a foreign company set up a key part of India’s security apparatus could create “national security issues,” Gupta feared.

In 2018, controversy erupted when Ajay Maken, an opposition politician in New Delhi, accused the local government of awarding a contract, through an Indian company, to provide almost half of the CCTV cameras planned to be installed in the capital to Prama Hikvision, a joint venture between Chinese company Hikvision and Indian company Prama Technologies, citing espionage risks.

Ashish P. Dhakan, CEO of Prama Hikvision, confirmed that the company supplied more than 140,000 CCTV cameras to New Delhi and had started installing them earlier this year.

“There is no evidence anywhere in the world, including India, to show that Hikvision products are being used for unauthorized information gathering,” he told CNN. Hikvision has never conducted, and will not conduct, any espionage-related activities for any government in the world.”

It is not the company’s only project in India. In 2018, Hikvision completed a network of surveillance cameras and a command and control center in Deesa City, Gujarat, according to a press release. In early October, it inaugurated India’s largest CCTV factory near Mumbai, with more than 2,000 employees. It describes itself as the “market leader” in India for video surveillance solutions.

Hikvision has gained increasing attention in the United States. In early October, it was included in a blacklist of 28 Chinese companies and government offices that are essentially barred from buying US products or importing American technology for their alleged role in facilitating human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region.

‘Technologically challenging’
Experts doubt whether India can implement such an ambitious project in such a short time. The system is expected to go live less than eight months after the contract is signed, according to the call for bids.

“A more realistic time frame is 12 to 18 months,” said Krishnan, who described the project as “technologically challenging.”

Creating a centralized platform won’t be the hardest part. “India already has a national database with photos of all the accused criminals in the country, which is regularly updated by law enforcement agencies in the states,” he explained. “It just needs to be linked to the national CCTV system.” A pilot project being carried out in New Delhi proves this is feasible, Krishnan said.

Covering the country with enough surveillance cameras — especially sophisticated ones equipped with facial recognition technology — will be a bigger challenge, he believes. India lags behind other countries in terms of installed security cameras.

New Delhi has 10 CCTV cameras for every 1,000 people, compared to 113 in Shanghai and 68 in London, according to data compiled by consumer website Comparitech. The figure is much lower in rural India, home to 66% of the country’s population.

“Many rural villages do not have a single surveillance camera,” says Krishnan.

But the country is catching up fast. New Delhi will install 330,000 new cameras, the capital’s deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia, said in July as he began the process. The project has been touted as a way to improve women’s safety in India’s largest city, which in recent years has been the site of several high-profile sexual assaults.

Facial recognition cameras were recently introduced at Bangalore airport and are being tested at Hyderabad airport, according to Reuters. New Delhi airport has also recently started using technology to speed up security checks.

“A dozen of India’s largest cities are now extensively covered, and another 24 are in the process of expanding their CCTV capabilities,” Krishnan said. He added that most train stations are now also equipped with surveillance cameras, and the government plans to have them all covered by 2021.

“This means in India: most citizens will at some point in their lives walk through a train station,” he said.

No legal protection
For privacy advocates, this is worrisome. “India has no data protection laws,” Gupta said. “It also does not plan to adopt a specific legal framework for the new facial recognition system, which means it is essentially unprotected.”

He fears India’s facial recognition system could become a tool of social policing, used to punish minor offenses such as littering in public places or to control the whereabouts of ethnic minorities.

Further down the line, it could also be linked to Aadhaar, India’s vast biometric database, which contains the personal details of 1.2 billion Indians, allowing India to establish “a total permanent surveillance state,” he added.

CNN reached out to the National Criminal Records Bureau but did not receive a response.

India has a history of privacy issues. In 2017, the Supreme Court of India issued a landmark decision, ruling that the right to privacy is part of the fundamental rights enshrined in the country’s constitution.

The decision paves the way for the draft Personal Data Protection Bill, which was presented to the government last year but has not yet been introduced to Parliament.

Rights activists have argued that fingerprints and retinal scans collected under Aadhaar violate an individual’s right to privacy.

Their concerns about privacy invasions appeared to be confirmed in early 2018 when Aadhaar suffered an alleged breach after reporters said they could buy access to people’s personal details for as little as $8.

To assuage criticism of its valuable new program, the government added new security measures. Later that year, in a separate decision, the Supreme Court found that the database did not violate privacy rights.

The court, however, introduced new restrictions on how Aadhaar information can be used, including measures to prevent corporate bodies from claiming the data.

Caught between the need to improve policing and to protect the privacy of its citizens, India will walk a tightrope when it comes to building its national facial recognition database.

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