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Activists decry Bangalore plan for facial recognition video surveillance

Activists decry Bangalore plan for facial recognition video surveillance

The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), an Indian civil society group working to protect internet liberties, is calling for an end to plans by officials in Bengaluru (Bangalore) to expand its safe city project with a facial recognition component.

The call follows a report produced by the IFF in collaboration with Bengaluru-based digital news platform The News Minute, detailing the trend of video surveillance in the city.

The IFF report highlights the gradual embedding of surveillance throughout the city of Bengaluru and reveals the city police’s plan to create a blacklist of individuals who will be monitored through the city’s vast network of facial recognition technology-enabled CCTV cameras, an IFF statement says.

A response by the police to a Right to Information (RTI) request from the IFF, cited by The News Minute, points out that the new facial recognition system will be able to match faces with images from its database and previous footage, and track the past movements of these blacklisted individuals.

“The system should generate alerts when a ‘blacklisted person’ is detected on the footage, or when someone is detected in an area where they are not permitted,” reads part of the RTI response.

Already, Bengaluru is running a video surveillance project which has so far seen the installation of more than 200,000 CCTV cameras, with at least 4,000 of them under the control of the police. The contract is handled by the Indian subsidiary of American technology company Honeywell International.

The city plans to increase, to about 100, the number of cameras with 4K resolution which will be able to run the new facial recognition system. As part of this plan, the police also want to increase the number of cameras under their purview to 7,500, according to the IFF and its media partner.

This, and other safe city projects across India, has alarmed the IFF and other digital rights campaigners who are calling for a halt in the deployment of such technology which they consider as harmful and intrusive.

“The growth of surveillance in India’s urban cities sets a dangerous trend and it is worrying to see the extent to which surveillance in Bengaluru is ongoing without any law in place to regulate the actions of the state government,” says Anushka Jain, policy counsel at IFF.

“In the absence of a data protection law to safeguard their right to privacy, the citizens of Bengaluru are extremely vulnerable to being victims of mass surveillance.”

The IFF also mentions its criticism of the DigiYatra (a biometric passenger checking system being rolled out at some of India’s major airports, including Bengaluru’s), and the installation of facial recognition cameras in the city metro system. The IFF says because of the harms that the facial recognition system portend, the use of the technology should be completely banned.

“As citizens we need to ask if these interventions are proportionate or not, and whether they are just a form of technology theatre,” says Prateek Waghre, policy director at IFF.

“We should also subject any elected government’s claims to higher levels of scrutiny and question if we are bartering our privacy, agency and dignity for perceived benefits that may not even materialize.”

Meanwhile, a petition addressed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi by the IFF through a community interest project dubbed Project Panoptic criticizes the growing deployment of facial recognition technology “by central and state government entities without any compliance with the basic rights assessment and legal thresholds as set out by the Supreme Court in the Right to Privacy Judgement in 2017.”

“We, the undersigned, urge you to announce a complete ban on the use of this technology by the government entities, police and other security/intelligence agencies. Further, we urge you to halt all ongoing facial recognition technology projects being developed and deployed at the Central and State level until a legislation with sufficient safeguards that helps protect the privacy of the citizens of India,” the petition urges.

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