A pending court case is reigniting the debate about the right to privacy in India. S Q Masood’s petition against the Telangana police first hit the headlines earlier this month, and stems from an incident that occurred in May of 2021.
In his complaint, Masood alleges that he was stopped by the police in Hyderabad without cause, and that the police forced him to remove his mask before taking his picture without his consent. He characterizes the incident as a violation of his fundamental right to privacy, which was guaranteed by the Indian Supreme Court back in 2017.
However, that ruling does not seem to have deterred law enforcement. The use of face-based surveillance technology has exploded in Telangana in the past few years, to the point that Amnesty International, the International Freedom Foundation (IFF), and Article 19 listed the state as the most surveilled place in the entire world. There are now more than 600,000 CCTV cameras scattered across Telangana, most of which are located in the capital of Hyderabad.
Civil rights groups like the IFF (which is backing Masood’s case) argue that that rapidly expanding network violates India’s constitution, and infringes on people’s civil liberties. In that regard, Masood’s case could be particularly telling. Activists are worried that police could use facial recognition technology to monitor, profile, and discriminate against minority groups like Muslims, Dalits, and transgender people, in much the same way that they allege that the police profiled and harassed Masood on the streets last May. Police in New Delhi also used facial recognition to arrest more than 1,100 protesters in early 2020.
In New Delhi, faces were cross-referenced with driver’s licenses and other official databases, a fact that raised additional concerns about data security. India does not yet have a meaningful data protection law, and the one that has been proposed creates broad exceptions for national security agencies. That means that Indian citizens do not know how their personal data will be used, or potentially used against them in a surveillance state. The federal government is moving forward with plans for a national surveillance system despite those objections.
With that in mind, the upcoming case could end up being a major showdown between privacy advocates and Indian law enforcement. The former groups are hoping that the court case will raise public awareness about the issue, and force the government to slow the expansion of its network. The IFF has asked for a three-year facial recognition ban to give lawmakers more time to craft meaningful guidelines for the ethical use of the technology.
Source: Al Jazeera
January 25, 2022 – by Eric Weiss