Facial recognition is becoming more common, popping up in airports, concert venues, and even churches. With the increasing presence of this technology comes heightened concerns about its privacy dangers, especially because it has been widely shown to be inaccurate. Digital rights activists have already called such surveillance technology a “profound threat” to society and our basic liberties, and a once-hypothetical fear—that governments will use facial recognition to identify and track protesters—has already proven true.
Police in Delhi used facial recognition software to screen the crowd at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent rally, in which he spoke about a new Indian citizenship law that has sparked protests across the country, the Indian Express reports. Protests erupted around India after the country’s parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which expedites the path to citizenship for certain migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan as long as they belong to one of six religions, on December 11. Absent on the religion list is Islam, and the law has stoked fears that Modi will turn India’s Muslims into “second-class citizens.”
At Modi’s rally on December 22, Delhi police used Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) software—which officials there acquired in 2018 as a tool to find and identify missing children—to screen the crowd for faces that match a database of people who have attended other protests around the city, and who officials said could be disruptive.
According to the Indian Express, Delhi police have long filmed these protest events, and the department announced Monday that officials fed that footage through AFRS. Sources told the Indian news outlet that once “identifiable faces” are extracted from that footage, a dataset will point out and retain “habitual protesters” and “rowdy elements.” That dataset was put to use at Modi’s rally to keep away “miscreants who could raise slogans or banners.”
“Each attendee at the rally was caught on camera at the metal detector gate and live feed from there was matched with the facial dataset within five seconds at the control room set up at the venue,” a Delhi police official involved with the security measures explained to the Indian Express.
A police spokesperson added in a statement that “Delhi Police assures that best industry standard checks and balances against any potential misuse of data are in place,” but this still marks a frightening first step in a growing trend. This use of facial recognition is a first for India, and the digital advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation wrote to the secretary for the Ministry of Home Affairs and to the commissioner of police of Delhi demanding a complete halt and recall of the AFRS, saying that the technology is “an act of mass surveillance and is completely illegal.”
Hong Kong law enforcement authorities also have access to facial recognition technology, prompting pro-democracy protesters to cover their faces out of fear of being targeted. Some cities in the United States have banned the technology, and advocates are urging other municipalities to adopt such bans. But in the meantime, the profiling and surveillance made possible by this technology are sparking widespread fears about our privacy.