Few technologies have drawn as much debate as facial recognition. While staunch advocates extol its benefits in enhancing security, critics condemn the gross violation of privacy its unfettered use could lead to.
These debates have been ignited once again as IBM announces its exit from the facial recognition business. Prompted by profound concerns over its misuse, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna said in a letter to members of the US Congress that the company firmly opposes the use of the technology for ‘mass surveillance, racial profiling, [and] violations of basic human rights and freedoms’.
But, facial recognition technology is having a moment in India. Over the past two years, it has invited much interest from the Indian government. In fact, it has already found applications in several industries and may be poised to become more ubiquitous in the future.
Facial Recognition Technology In India
Despite a limited understanding of what it entails, the potential of facial recognition is beginning to be widely explored in India, especially in enhancing national security. The country took the first significant step in this direction last year when the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) under the Home Ministry released a tender calling on bidders to help create an Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS).
In what has emerged as one of the biggest deployment of facial recognition systems in the world since then, the AFRS is currently being leveraged to make police forces in India more efficient.
One of the biggest challenges for them is to manually match CCTV videos against images in various databases across governmental departments, newspapers, and other sources in the public domain. AFRS simplifies this process by extracting facial biometrics from videos and matching it with the images housed in these databases. Thus, it equips them with real-time capacity to easily monitor and nab criminals, and even identify missing children as well as deceased bodies.
What is more, further iterations are currently being explored through machine learning to enhance it. In addition to AFRS, NCRB is also reportedly looking to integrate fingerprint data under its National Automated Fingerprint Identification System (NAFIS) program with Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS). Combined with facial data, it will greatly assist law enforcement agencies in their investigations.
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Tech Becoming Mainstream With Covid-19
As India sat on the cusp between understanding the technology better and stopping short of implementing it widely, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated its adoption, albeit with some reservations.
Within a short space of time, facial recognition became a critical tool to ensure that social distancing protocols were being obeyed to stem the spread of the virus, as well as to replace contact-based systems at workplaces and other establishments.
For instance, the Telangana government has reportedly been exploring the potential of this technology in developing contactless attendance systems by retrofitting existing biometric infrastructure with an AI-powered security system. Similar arrangements have shored up to several workplaces as well.
Another notable example is how prisons in Gurugram is ensuring that inmates follow social distancing rules using AI-based video surveillance technology. Using a tool developed by Staqu Technologies, it scans CCTV footage and alerts authorities in case of violations.
The ability to remember faces by mapping facial features against images and using it in tandem with other emerging technologies like AI has given rise to various applications that are, above all, contactless, making it very popular amid the Covid-19 crisis. What is more, advances in facial recognition have also circumvented the limitations that increased masked wearers can pose to the technology.
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Finding a balance
While facial recognition provides an unparalleled opportunity to curb crime, stem the spread of Covid-19 and even prevent human trafficking, its not fallible and can easily be misused if not dealt with restraint.
For instance, its blatant use amid protests in Delhi to monitor and penalise dissenters came under much scrutiny and criticism. Thus, even as it greatly helps law enforcement agencies in the country and thereby enhances national security, it should not be implemented without strong safeguards in place to avoid misuse.
As of today, there is no regulation that actively protects sensitive information fed into these facial recognition systems, raising reasonable concerns about privacy. What is more, with little known about this data, the accuracy of the facial recognition software itself may be questionable. However, given its potential to solve problems, if applied with proper regulatory mechanisms, it could be leveraged in a manner that can be both safe and effective.