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Why a UN body is raising the alarm on biometric recognition tech in public spaces

The UN report argued that AI-based systems were prone to bias even as the use of facial recognition tech grows in India.

Governments should impose a moratorium on using biometric recognition technology in public spaces, a new report released on September 15 by the UN Human Rights Office recommended. The use of AI for remote biometric recognition interferes with the international human rights to privacy, freedom of movement and expression, the report observed.

In a press release announcing the report, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said:

We cannot afford to continue playing catch-up regarding AI – allowing its use with limited or no boundaries or oversight, and dealing with the almost inevitable human rights consequences after the fact[…]Action is needed now to put human rights guardrails on the use of AI, for the good of all of us.

Disregarding the threat to citizens’ rights, state governments in India are already rushing to implement face recognition technology, most recently in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. The new UN report could be key to starting a conversation about halting the deployment of such AI applications until adequate legislative frameworks are in place.

Biometric recognition in public threatens human rights: UN

States should wait to deploy biometric recognition in public spaces until they demonstrate that 1) they are compliant with privacy and data protection standards and 2) accuracy and bias issues have been dealt with, the report from the UN High Commission for Human Rights recommended.

In its report, the UN body pointed out the following concerns with using AI for biometric recognition in public spaces:

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  • Bias and Error: The report acknowledged that biometric recognition is riddled with bias and inaccuracies. This could lead to erroneous identification of individuals, affecting certain groups disproportionately.
  • Profiling: Such tools could allow governments to profile people based on their race, gender, ethnicity, or national origin, which the report found concerning in terms of international human rights.
  • Right To Privacy: A person’s biometric information reveals unique characteristics that distinguish them from other people. Using this information for real-time identification is a threat to the right to privacy, the report argues.
  • Freedom of Movement and Expression: Remote biometric recognition dramatically improves the ability of states to track individuals, undermining their ability to exist in public spaces unobserved. This, the report points out, interferes with the freedom of expression, movement and peaceful assembly.
  • Emotional Recognition: The report also takes note of predictive biometrics that identify security threats by deducing mental states based on facial expressions. Such prediction lacks a scientific basis, and usage of such tech by public authorities threatens the right to privacy and a fair trial, according to the report.

Real-time facial recognition tech being used in India

Multiple states in India have already started acquiring equipment and implementing remote biometric recognition:

  • Uttar Pradesh: The UP government is planning to install 700 AI-based CCTV cameras and 100 facial recognition cameras in Lucknow to detect suspicious activity, an exclusive report by MediaNama revealed.
  • Meghalaya: The Meghalaya government released an app in August that uses facial recognition to verify whether pensioners are alive to receive their next installments.
  • Delhi: The Delhi Police had used its facial recognition system to trace 1,100 people behind the Delhi riots in February, Union Home Minister Amit Shah informed the Lok Sabha in March 2020.

Apart from states, central government authorities in India are using or planning to use facial recognition technology across the country for specific purposes:

  • Examination Halls: The National Testing Agency (NTA) has proposed the installation of CCTV cameras in 4,000 examination centres coupled with compulsory biometric verification such as iris and fingerprint scans as well as facial scans.
  • Railway Stations: Indian railways had decided to install facial recognition-equipped CCTV cameras in 983 railway stations across the country. The technology has been implemented in 310 stations till now, the IT minister informed Parliament in August this year.

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Figuring out subscriptions and growth at MediaNama. Email: nishant@medianama.com

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