Automated Facial Recognition Technology in India

Effective According to Law Enforcement Agencies but Research Suggest Otherwise

Automated Facial Recognition Technology in India
Automated Facial Recognition Technology in India

Recently the Ministry of Home Affairs (Govt. of India) has given its approval to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for the use of Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) technology for the identification of unrecognized bodies, missing children and criminals and also for the prevention of any future crimes.


Automated face recognition system (AFRS) is the ability of machines to identify or verify a person from a digital image or a video frame from a video source. In 2019 the NCRB had released a proposal for AFRS to be used by law enforcement across the country. AFRS can play a vital role in crime prevention, crime identification, verification etc. However, in the absence of a robust data protection law there are concerns of abuse of the technology.

AFRS is a software that is able to recognize, record and match the faces of any person from an image often taken from CCTV footage against various  existing government databases consisting of photos and videos collected from various public as well as private sources.

Essentially it is a biometric technology that uses the typical features of a person’s face to distinguish and identify a particular individual. The back-end technology behind it is an artificial intelligence (AI) known by the name of “neural networks“.

Developed in the mid-1960s this biometric technology has evolved to a great extent, with the aid of machine learning and AI, till now.

The request for proposal document released last year by NCRB mentions the integration of the AFRS to a number of  existing databases in the country, primarily the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS) , which is a country wide integrated database consisting of crime incidents and suspects, collected from different police stations across the country. Other databases to which the AFRS will have access to includes the Inter-operable Criminal Justice System (ICJS) (a computer network that facilitates live sharing of data between criminal courts and police stations), Khoya-Paya portal ( citizen based website to exchange information on missing and found children) etc.

Although the AFRS will be hosted in the data centre of NCRB in New Delhi but, it will be accessible to all police stations across the country.

AFRS benefits Info 1
AFRS benefits

Benefits of Using AFRS

  1. AFRS will play a very important role in the effective identification and verification of criminals, as it will facilitate easier sharing and retrieval of information between different law enforcement organizations and courts.
  2. It will play an effective role in identifying individuals, especially in crowded places, mass gatherings etc. where conventional methods of identification like fingerprint and iris scans may prove to be logistically inconvenient.
  3. An integration of fingerprint and IRIS scan databases with the AFRS have also been proposed, which will improve the crime investigation capabilities of police departments across the country to a large extent
  4. It will prevent the use of fake citizen IDs by fraudsters.
  5. It will also facilitate the easier delivery of different citizen services like passport verification, crime reporting, grievance recording against government officers etc.
AFRS concerns Info 2
AFRS concerns

Concerns of Using AFRS

  1. Research suggests that it is technically impossible for the AFRS to effectively and flawlessly identify, track, verify criminals unless every data of every individual has been recorded, classified and queried in a foolproof manner.
  2. There is a possibility that this system will treat every individual, whose photo will be captured by CCTV cameras installed in public and private places, as potential criminals. Thus, the long-standing premise on which Indian justice system is based, “innocent until proven guilty” will be disregarded.
  3. The trend of accuracy rate of this software, in different countries across the world, is only about 2%. Research studies indicates the failure rates of this system to be particularly high in cases where minorities, women, children are involved.
  4. The use of AFRS will make personal data protection almost an impossible task, as data will be collected from surveillance systems installed in both public as well as private places. Therefore, there is a high possibility of misuse of the data by the government, law enforcement and anti-terror agencies of the country, as AFRS and its integration with the different databases will introduce a system of seamless mass surveillance in the country, particularly in a period when the country does not yet have a data protection law (the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018 is yet to come to force and even if it does come into force there are legal loopholes in the bill which are in favor of  the law enforcement and security agencies operating in the country) .

Some Case Studies

  1. China’s surveillance system on its citizens is notoriously well known in the world. International Organizations across the world has condemned, time and again, The Chinese surveillance policies and the use of surveillance cameras and AFRS to suppress the Uighur community. China also exports surveillance equipments to other countries especially those belonging to Latin America and Africa. In the wake of US-China trade war face off. The US government has banned the import and use of Chinese company chips, like Huawei and others.

2.Amazon’s facial recognition software, “Rekognition”   generated faulty results during a test run  conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (an American non-profit organization, to preserve and protect the personal liberty and rights of the American people), in the year 2018.

3.The controversial FaceAPP Smartphone application caused a huge uproar in the year 2017. This app which is developed by a software firm based in Russia, allows Smartphone users to model their face in different circumstances based on filters such as age, ethnicity etc. The user license agreement form of this software was the biggest cause of controversy, as it allowed unrestricted use of the images of the faces of the users ,captured by the application , by the developer anywhere and  anytime in the future without the consent of the user.  

European Commission Report

A leaked report of the European Commission (“executive branch of the European Union, responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU”) suggests that the commission is considering the idea of imposition of a temporary ban on the indiscriminate use of AFRS in the EU affiliated countries, for  a period up to 5 years, so that  “a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed “.

Conclusion and Way forward

Today the Facial recognition technology is being increasingly used in large number of areas. Starting from its inception, during the mid-1960s till the present time the  base areas of its applications have widened a lot including its use in modern day Smart phones ,  finding missing persons , criminal identification, identifying dead bodies etc.

The proposed use of this technology by the security and law enforcement agencies in India will no doubt increase the efficiency of these agencies but at the same time it will seriously endanger the privacy and liberty  of the citizens of the country, a Fundamental Right guaranteed to every citizens of the country under Article 21 of the Constitution of India . At a time when a personal data protection law is yet to be enforced in our country, deliberation is needed on the part of the government, law enforcement and judicial institutions  on the spectrum of effectiveness of this technology before proceeding to a full-fledged use of this technology  .

A discussion paper on the National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence, published by NITI Aayog has identified several issues that needs to be addressed, in regard to the use of any AI based technology solution in India. This includes the issues of “data collection without consent”, “privacy of personal data”, “inherent selection biases and resultant risk of profiling and discrimination”,” non-transparent nature of AI solutions”, among many others. To address these issues NITI Aayog has proposed a number of solutions including the  establishment of  a comprehensive “data protection framework with legal backing”, establishment of “sectoral regulatory frameworks” to address specific AI related  issues in the lines of those established in advanced economies like Germany, Japan etc., encouraging AI developers to adhere to international ethical standards regarding safety and privacy. The Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems  of the IEEE has developed such a standard going by the name of “Personal Data and Individual Access Control in Ethically Aligned Design “, “Investment and Collaboration in privacy preserving AI research”, spreading awareness amongst the citizens about the importance of “consent, ethics and privacy while dealing with technology” via “pan-India campaigns in multiple languages  and inclusion of privacy rights in school and college curriculum” etc. among many others.


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