'Pandora’s Box of Privacy Issues': Experts on Delhi Govt Schools' Use of Facial Recognition Tech

An RTI query by the Internet Freedom Foundation found that 12 Delhi government schools were in the process of installing facial recognition technology.

New Delhi: After initiating a project to install closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in classrooms and schools, the Delhi government is now pushing ahead with the surveillance programme by implementing the use of facial recognition technology (FRT) in its schools.

The move has come at a time when cyber experts and lawyers have warned against exposing citizens, and especially children, to such monitoring which can be misused by cybercriminals and hackers.

At least 12 Delhi government schools confirmed that they had or were in the process of installing facial recognition technology in response to a Right to Information (RTI) query filed with the Directorate of Education in December 2020 by Anushka Jain, an associate counsel (Transparency and Right to Information) at Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital liberties organisation.

RTI had asked about SOP, regulations for use of FRT and CCTVs

Speaking to The Wire, Jain said the project was launched by the Aam Aadmi Party government in 2019 for installing CCTVs in all Delhi government schools. “We asked the Education Department of the Delhi government at the end of 2020 if they were using facial recognition and they said yes. Most of the schools have also replied that it is in the process of happening or they are getting the information from the Education Department,” Jain said.

On privacy concerns and the safety of children, Jain said that since it was an RTI application, it was not possible to send open-ended queries and so, specific questions were asked. “We asked them whether there was any standard operating procedure or regulations were in place, about the duration and purpose of installation of CCTVs,” Jain said.

Also read: Policing or Protection: Parents Ponder as SC Refuses to Stay Delhi Govt’s School CCTV Project

Twelve schools confirmed use of FRT

The Internet Freedom Foundation filed the RTI with the education department, which forwarded the query to all the schools under the Delhi government. Around 150 schools have responded.

“Out of this, 12 said yes the facial recognition system has been installed or it was in process,” Jain said.

Now, Jain has filed a follow-up RTI to get more direct answers from the Delhi government. In the new RTI filed earlier this month with the education department, the Delhi government has been asked if there is an SOP for the collection and processing of information which is collected through the CCTV cameras; the duration for which they stored the information, the purpose for which it is collected, processed and stored; and the kind of software and hardware that is being used for CCTVs.

‘Follow up query sent to seek more details’

The group has also asked for details of the total number of CCTV cameras that have been installed and the total expenditure incurred. It has also asked which legislation or rule authorised the Delhi government to use facial recognition technology on students in schools and whether any legal opinion was sought by the government prior to procuring the technology.

The questions also cover the issues pertaining to the cost-benefit analysis, feasibility study; privacy impact assessment; if there was any guideline policy or rule in place to govern the use of facial recognition and from which companies the CCTVs were obtained.

Students wearing protective face masks are seen inside a classroom of a government-run school after authorities ordered schools to reopen voluntarily for classes 9 to 12, in Gurugram, India October 15, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

Speaking about Project Panoptic of IFF, 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, Jain said the organisation has been following facial recognition projects by the governments, at the Centre and at the state levels. “On our website, panoptic.in, there is a map of India and you can see the number of such projects in different states. We are currently tracking around 40 projects all over the country, both central and state.”

Also read: Delhi Govt Flouting Rules by Giving Out Personal Details of RTI Applicants

Various states using FRT for police surveillance, voter verification

Jain said the project has also obtained information on how different police departments across the states are using facial recognition. The project also has information on how the Telangana State Election Commission is using facial recognition for voter verification.

As to what prompted the group to seek information regarding the Delhi government’s project, Jain said, “We were worried about what the Delhi Government was doing because usually these systems are used for authentication of identity – such as for voter verification – and for security and surveillance purposes, like the police makes use of them.”

‘Use of FRT with CCTVs in schools is totally unimaginable’

Stating that the use of this technology in schools does not make sense – especially through CCTVs installed in classrooms – because it is extremely excessive – Jain said “to use this technology on children and invade their privacy is something which is obviously not proportional to any issue that they think they are going to solve through it.”

The IFF is also trying to understand why the Delhi Government undertook the project. “Even CCTVs are an invasion of privacy but some parents were okay as they wanted to see what their children were doing, but why facial recognition technology is being used in conjunction with CCTVs in schools is totally unimaginable,” said Jain.

‘Use of FRT fraught with dangers’

Cyber law expert and senior advocate, Pawan Duggal, said the move to use facial recognition technology in schools was fraught with many dangers. “Putting up CCTV cameras in schools opens up a Pandora’s Box of legal issues, specifically privacy issues. These issues have to be appropriately addressed given the fact that we all have a fundamental right to privacy, which derives from the judgment of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy versus Union of India.”

Also read: Kejriwal’s Move to Install CCTV in Classrooms Raises Concerns About Impact of Surveillance

Pointing out that schools are public places and people still have an expectation of privacy there, he said, “so if you are going to put CCTV cameras in schools, this could be hampering children’s fundamental right to privacy. And this could also expose the concerned institutions to wrong exposure because the CCTV camera in school is not a necessity.”

‘No law passed by parliament authorises CCTV use in schools’

Duggal questioned if the move to use FRT and CCTVs had any legal sanction. “The right to privacy is linked to the fundamental right to life under Article 21 and it can only be deprived in accordance with procedure established by law. This means that if the parliament has passed a law which authorised such CCTV cameras in schools then you can deprive me of the right to privacy through that law and not otherwise,” he elaborated.

“As of now,” Duggal said, “there is no law passed by parliament which mandates the installation of CCTV cameras in schools. In the absence of any such law, the entire experimental exercise is bound to be fraught with a lot of legal challenges. Any student or any parent can go and challenge it. The parents can go in for writ petitions in the courts and more significantly it could also involve other things – because you are now capturing children’s pictures under circumstances when they have an expectation of privacy.”

A facial recognition system at work. Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip

‘Putting CCTVs in schools is unauthorised monitoring’

Duggal said when students come to school, they come to study, they don’t want to be monitored. “So if you are putting your CCTV cameras in school it would tantamount to unauthorised monitoring. This opens up a much bigger debate. This is a gross violation of children’s rights. I think governments must go slow in this regard till the time they pass a law in parliament.”

‘Surveillance can become a tool of misuse by governments’

The cyber law expert cautioned that data being obtained through FRT and CCTVs was liable to be misused in the absence of proper preservation. “The biggest fears in such cases are the subject matter under surveillance are minors. They don’t have the capacity to determine how they are being monitored. Such surveillance can also become a big tool of misuse in the hands of the relevant governments,” he said.

Also read: Why Delhi School Teachers Are Wary About Increasing Surveillance and Intimidation

He added that “if you collect children’s data, this is sensitive data, this is not normal data, and if it is not being properly handled or dealt with the chances of this entire data being misused or hacked can be very much present.”

‘Data on children commands a premium on dark web’

Duggal also warned that the data on children could end up being used in many ways. “A lot of things can happen. Children’s pictures can be picked up. We do not know how the data is being preserved. The cybersecurity ramifications are huge. Already children’s data is sold for premium in the market, on the dark web. So if you are doing a CCTV camera and if the footage is left at a place where there is no adequate cybersecurity, it can be hacked by cybercriminals and hackers.”

Finally, he said, these are issues that have a direct bearing on the enjoyment of personal privacy and data privacy. “So to merely say that the system is being used to monitor or match images does not really help. It has no legal sanctity in the eyes of law.”

The Wire has sent a questionnaire to the Principal Secretary (Education), H. Rajesh Prasad, on [email protected] and Director, Directorate of Education, Udit Prakash Rai, at [email protected], seeking their response on the use of the facial recognition technology, its necessity, enabling legislation and rules, and whether it was the AAP government or the lieutenant governor’s office which sought its use. The story will be updated as and when their response is received.