Education

Should Delhi govt schools be using the facial recognition technology?

Nandana James Mumbai | Updated on February 12, 2021

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Facial recognition technology   -  metamorworks

CBSE’s biometrics use raises concerns in the absence of data protection and privacy laws

The use of the facial recognition technology in several Delhi government schools - in conjunction with the CCTV cameras installed - raises grave concerns, given the absence of data protection and privacy laws in India, as well as regulations for the use of this technology. Being a vulnerable demographic, children also need greater protection as far as collection and processing of data are concerned, say experts.

Furthermore, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) is also using a facial matching technology on students.

RTI on biometrics use

A Right to Information application by Anushka Jain, Associate Counsel (Transparency & Right to Information), Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital liberties organisation, has revealed that as of February 2, 12 government schools in Delhi have deployed the facial recognition technology. This RTI was filed with the Education Department, Delhi government, with responses from various schools coming in from January 13, 2021.

In July 2019, the Aam Aadmi Party government installed CCTV cameras in all government schools.

An RTI filed with CBSE by another digital rights organisation, SFLC.in, revealed that CBSE uses facial matching as one of the authentication mechanisms in multi-factor authentication for providing digital marksheets, especially to overseas students. The system is developed in technical collaboration with the National e-Governance Division, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, CBSE said in its response on November 24, 2020.

When asked about the privacy policy underlying this, CBSE said: “There is no such need of any privacy policy since it’s a simple face matching process where (the) photograph of a student is already available with CBSE.”

“What is most problematic about the use of the FRT in schools is that we don't have a data protection law or any kind of privacy law in India. You have the right to privacy - the Puttaswamy v. Union of India judgment. Facial recognition, used by the schools in classrooms, is a very high level of escalation that they've adopted,” Jain tells BusinessLine.

“We are arguing with the Delhi police about the use of facial recognition in the streets or a scene of crime. When it comes to this, at least you can understand where they’re coming from, even if it’s wrong. But using it on children who are sitting in class is blatantly wrong, and it should not be allowed,” says Jain.

Jain points out. “Any technology that's going to affect the public at large needs to be regulated by the government - especially because the government itself is using it. So, the government’s use also has to be regulated.”

IFF’s Project Panoptic - which aims to bring transparency and accountability to the relevant government stakeholders involved in the deployment and implementation of facial recognition technology (FRT) projects in India - has been calling for a ban on the use of this technology altogether, says Jain.

The accuracy of the FRT is widely contested on a global level, she reminds. “The second problem is that even if you put data protection laws in place, the current (draft) data protection law gives wide exemptions to the government. So, the use of this technology by the government for mass surveillance could become a reality wherein the government is creating 360-degree profiles of each and every person and this could hamper fundamental rights - such as the right to protest, right to freedom of speech and expression. The use of this technology is just not worth the imagined pros that the government is saying.”

As children need greater protection as far as collection and processing of data are concerned, the use of facial recognition technologies on them is problematic, says Prasanth Sugathan, legal director, SFLC.in.

"FRT works in a legal vacuum in India. Coupled with the absence of a data protection law, this could pose a grave danger for citizens." What is more, the Tamil Nadu government is also in the process of deploying FRT-based attendance systems in schools, Sugathan points out. SFLC has filed an RTI seeking details of the project, but it is yet to receive a response on this, he adds.

Often no impact assessment is done before carrying out projects, which pose a threat to privacy of citizens, especially children, he says.

Surveillance by Delhi schools?

Besides, the Delhi schools using the FRT do not have a standard operating procedure in place, says Jain. “We don't know how long they're going to keep the data obtained for, how it’s going to be processed, who has access to it… if they are using it for security purposes, or is it being shared with the police? And if it's being shared with the police, whether any action has been taken based on facial recognition data? There is a big transparency issue, especially with the government, when it comes to facial recognition.”

Most schools cited security reasons as the purpose for the use of the FRT, in response to the RTIs. Is this a valid enough reason for using this technology in school premises, and do these potential benefits outweigh the threat it poses to privacy and surveillance?

“This means that it is important to seek parental consent before collecting the biometric data, having standards on data security, retention, proportionality and sharing. One of the most crucial elements, that is of informed consent is also absent in all such deployments. Considering that all these parameters are absent in the current FRT deployment by schools, governments and educational institutions, it is a major cause of concern,” says Sugathan

Instead of using CCTV cameras and facial recognition as a buzzword, it is important to analyse the possible challenges they can pose particularly in case of children, he stresses.

“The unregulated use of such technologies could irreparably corrode and destroy freedoms of school children in India. A governing body to regulate the use of technology in schools under the highest level of privacy and ethical standards is the need of the hour to avoid unwanted troubles,” says Sonam Chandwani, Managing Partner at KS Legal & Associates.

Will proper regulations for the use of the facial recognition technology, as well as data privacy and protection laws, make its use in school premises appropriate?

Definitely, proper regulations is the key here, says Sugathan. “However, we would also emphasise on access to grievance redressal and an effective data regulator for the successful implementation of the data protection laws,” he cautions.

Emailed queries sent to the Education Department of Delhi government and CBSE did not elicit any response.

This issue should also be seen in the context of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) inviting bids from turnkey solution providers for the implementation of a centralised Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS), back in June 2019.

In July 2019, IFF stated on its website that there are currently no legal restrictions or limitations to this technology to ensure its proportional use or afford protection to those it interacts with. “Add facial recognition to the ongoing debate on CCTVs and we have ourselves a full-fledged mix of India and China no longer being restricted to the Indo-Chinese cuisine. Considering the trajectory India appears to be on with mass surveillance and technological perpetuating of discrimination, a scarier version of the Orwellian dystopia seems to be right up our alley.”

Apart from the absence of legality, IFF also pointed out that studies by MIT and Georgetown, as well as trials conducted by the London Metropolitan Police acknowledge that pervasive biases that exist currently within our societies are likely to be mimicked by the algorithms within these systems.

Published on February 12, 2021

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