As security and surveillance gain focus, Indian authorities have invested over ₹1,513 crore in setting up Facial Recognition Technology (FRT), according to an independent report by the Internet Freedom Foundation’s (IFF) Panoptic Tracker. As of April 2023, India’s total financial outlay on FRT systems was around ₹1,513.26 crore on approximately 35 FRT systems. This includes the Central Government’s financial outlay of ₹770.2 crore and ₹743.06 crore by the state governments.  

FRTs are a type of biometric software that analyzes facial features. Basic components of FRTs include image capturing, face detection, and feature extraction. FRTs are deployed to prevent crime and for security purposes; however, it can be used for large-scale surveillance by controlling databases of large populations.

The rights-based group filed 118 Right to Information requests to procure the information.

Data shows that India has a total of 170 FRT systems . Of these, 88.2 per cent are in the tender bidding, implementation, procurement, and final stage, and 20 are already active.

Most FRT systems are found in Maharashtra, Delhi, and Telangana, with 11.2 per cent, 8.8 per cent, and 7.1 per cent shares of the total, respectively. Telangana and Delhi have the highest number of active FRTs in place, with 4 and 3 systems, respectively.

Of the 170 FRTs in place, defence organisations such as the police and army, utilise this system with a 20 per cent share, followed by the education sector (with 13 per cent share), energy (12 per cent), and public infrastructure sector (10 per cent), respectively.

Anushka Jain, who formerly worked as a Policy Council at the IFF and developed the Panoptic Tracker explained, “Firstly, the unavailability of uniform information across states varies significantly, which leads to certain states showing more FRTs and, subsequently, ranking higher in related metrics. Secondly, there has been a specific technology push by the Telangana and Maharashtra governments.”

Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher, said, “Various social, political, economic, and cultural factors have contributed to the increased use of such technology in our lives, primarily for security purposes. For instance, after the Nirbhaya case in Delhi post-2012, there was a significant push for installing CCTV cameras. The AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) advocated for CCTVs in Delhi to monitor the police and enhance public safety.”

Globally, data from Comaritech shows that in 2022, China, Uganda, and Myanmar were the only countries using FRTs at an ‘invasive level.’ India, Japan, and Russia are among 42 countries where FRTs are used at a ‘widespread level.’ France, the UK, and Spain are in the ‘growing use’ category, with 26 countries in it.

There have been few instances where use of FRTs by Indian authorities has come under the scanner. According to a report in The Hindu, a report submitted by Delhi Police in 2018 said the accuracy of information procured using FRTs was only 2 per cent. The police also used the system to monitor anti-CAA protests in 2020.

Jain said, “Mostly start-up companies and a few international companies develop FRTs for the government. The data protection law has been enacted, but if it takes time to enforce this law, companies may not comply with the rules due to the lack of active regulations.”

The Digital Personal Data Protection Act 2023 was enacted last August to establish some rules for protecting individual privacy, but Kodali notes that the current data protection law grants wider exemptions to the government on aspects such as use of FRT. 

“It is becoming a part of every organisation, providing a broader level of control. The question arises as to who receives this control — whether it is the police, government agencies, or individuals. This is where the challenge lies,” Kodali added.