India is trying to build the biggest facial recognition system in the world. The government envisions a future where police officials from 29 states will be able to access a single, centralized database. The details of the project are laid out in a detailed 172-page document released by the National Crime Records Bureau. The document requests bids from companies to build the facial recognition system and interested parties had time till October 11 to submit their proposal.
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The project, which remains unnamed, would match images from the country’s network of CCTV cameras against a database encompassing mug shots of criminals. It will also match images against passport photos and images collected by agencies such as the Ministry of Women and Child Development. The platform, per the document, will also allow searches based on photos uploaded from newspapers, images sent in by the public or artist sketches of suspected criminals.
The system will recognize faces on CCTV cameras and generate an alert if a blacklist match is found. The Indian government also proposes equipping security forces with handle-held mobile devices to capture a face in the field and search it instantly against the national database using a dedicated app. The database is seen playing a vital role in identifying criminals, missing persons and bodies. According to CNN, it is not known how many companies have submitted bids to help build India’s facial recognition system.
About 80 representatives of vendors have reportedly taken part in a pre-bid meeting, which took place at the end of July. “To be eligible to bid, a company has to have completed at least three facial recognition projects globally,” explains Apar Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation, an NGO which has put forward a legal notice to cancel the call for bids. “This disqualifies most Indian companies.”
IBM, HP Enterprise and Accenture have reportedly shown interest, Sivarama Krishnan, who leads cybersecurity at PricewaterhouseCoopers India, told CNN. However, Gupta says that having a foreign company set up a critical security apparatus could raise “national security issues”.
The Delhi government was accused of having awarded a contract to Prama Hikvision, a joint venture between Chinese company Hikvision and Indian company Prama Technologies, that could be risk for espionage. Ashish P. Dhakan, CEO of Prama Hikvision, confirmed supply of more than 1,40,000 CCTV cameras to New Delhi. “There is no evidence anywhere in the world, including India, to indicate that Hikvision’s products are used for unauthorized collection of information,” he told CNN.
In early October, Hikvision inaugurated India’s largest CCTV factory near Mumbai with more than 2,000 employees. It has also completed a network of surveillance cameras and command and control centers in Deesa City, Gujarat. The company has come under increased scrutiny in the United States. It was included on a blacklist of 28 Chinese companies and government offices barred from buying US products or importing American technology over their alleged role in abuse of human rights in China’s Xinjiang region.
The Indian government aims to complete the project in less than eight months after the contract is signed. However, experts doubt if India can carry out such an ambitious project in such a short time. “A more realistic time frame would be 12 to 18 months,” says Krishnan, who describes the project as “technologically challenging.” The biggest challenge comes in the form of number of installed security cameras in the country.
According to Comparitech, New Delhi has 10 CCTV cameras per 1,000 people while Shanghai and London have 113 and 68 respectively. In rural areas, that number drops even further, which would make it difficult to create a single surveillance system. The installation of CCTV cameras has also raised privacy concerns and the lack of a data protection law has become a worry. Many see the tool being used for social policing in the country.
There is also concern of the national database being linked to Aadhaar, which already covers more than 90 percent of the population. Gupta adds that vast CCTV network paired with 1.2 billion Indians covered via Aadhaar could result in “a total, permanent surveillance state.”