How will India meet these crisis?

Which is why the security establishment is now fixated on unstructured data—anything you can’t put in a spreadsheet, such as social media posts, speeches, photos, etc.

The goal for agencies is to integrate both structured and unstructured data to have a comprehensive view of individuals or situations.

“Take the anti-CAA protests, for example. If someone is using an alarming keyword in one or two conversations, agencies won’t bother. But if I write a lot about CAA—maybe 100 times— then that profile is picked up,” said a senior executive with a consulting firm. Facial recognition technology can then be used to warn agencies if the identified person is moving towards certain geographies, the executive adds.

While this is already possible, the Identification of Prisoners and Arrested Persons Bill makes it legal. And leading this descent into a surveillance state is facial recognition.

Face-off

The face is a unique identifier, and facial recognition is much easier to do than fingerprint and iris scans, said a government official who is involved in technology projects of MHA. In the future, facial recognition will become the biggest identifier, the official said.

In some Indian cities, such as Hyderabad, this is already the case.

Similarly, the Mumbai Police use a network of roughly 20,000 camera feeds, mostly concentrated in South Bombay, to keep an eye on criminals and suspects. As part of a pilot programme being run in certain areas, software tags each face captured by the police CCTV network and stores the data for three days, an executive with a facial recognition solutions provider told The Ken. The amount of data stored at any point in this project runs into Petabytes, the executive said. One Petabyte equals 1,000,000 Gigabytes.

This data makes it possible for security agencies to go back and identify individuals should the need arise.

The NCRB, though, has plans that go far beyond what individual states or agencies have implemented, seeking to realise the full potential of electronic and video surveillance. The system will add images, the AFRS tender document says, from newspapers, raids, those sent by people, sketches, etc., to the criminal’s repository. These will be tagged for gender, age, tattoos and other identifiers for future searches.

It also plans to integrate its AFRS solution with massive databases such as passports, driving licences, and, according to an executive at a leading global security solutions provider, even social media. Already, says an executive from a large technology company, there is technology available to directly integrate the AFRS-like system with internet platforms such as YouTube or Facebook.

The system will also be linked to another massive dataset called the Interoperable Criminal Justice System, ICJS. Being implemented by the National Informatics Centre (NIC), the ICJS aims to link prisons (including visitors data), prosecution, courts and police records, passports, drivers licences, vehicle registration, medico-legal cases, and more.

“As and when needed we can integrate the databases such as voter ID or other citizen databases, most of which is managed by NIC,” said the government official involved in MHA projects.

Various intelligence agencies and security forces could also fall under this data gathering and sharing umbrella. Like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), National Investigation Agency (NIA), Railway Protection Force, and the Border Security Force, for instance.

This system, if operationalised, could prove to be a miniature version of the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), said the government official. NATGRID was meant to be a master database of information for security and intelligence agencies. It was proposed in the aftermath of the 26 November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. The project hasn’t taken off yet for various reasons, political buy-in being one of them. Since late 2019, though, there have been murmurs that it will be operationalised shortly.

A loaded weapon

While the proposed Bill is key to unlocking all of this, what is less clear is whether the legislation will have any safeguards. This is vital with any new technology, but doubly so when the privacy of over a billion people is at stake.

During the anti-CAA protests, several state police forces besides Delhi’s used facial recognition to identify protestors, regardless of whether they were peaceful or not. It is a tactic to influence an individual’s behaviour and deter them from taking part in these protests, said Vidushi Marda, legal researcher with Article 19, a UK-based human rights organisation with a special focus on freedom of expression.