Telangana HC Issues Notice on PIL Challenging Use of Facial Recognition Technology

The PIL was filed by activist S.Q. Masood who was stopped by Hyderabad police in May last year and asked to take his mask off so they could take his photo, despite the second wave of COVID raging. When he refused, they took the photo anyway.

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New Delhi: The Telangana high court on Monday, January 3 issued notice to the state government on a public interest litigation (PIL) challenging the increasing use of facial recognition technology (FRT) in the state, Live Law reported.

The PIL was filed by one S.Q. Masood, a resident of Telangana’s capital Hyderabad after he was stopped by eight to ten police officers on his way home on May 19  last year.

After he was stopped, the police asked Masood to take off his mask so they could take his picture, despite the country being in the midst of the second wave of coronavirus infections then. When he refused, the police took his picture anyway, without his consent and despite his compliance with all the prevailing lockdown norms and COVID-19 protocols.

The next day, Masood, a social activist and consultant with various NGOs wrote to the police commissioner, Hyderabad city, raising questions about the reason for these photographs being taken, the legal basis for them to be taken and stored, who would have access to these photographs, the implications on privacy and so on. 

Masood, however, did not receive a response and thus, approached the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), an organisation which works in the domain of digital rights, privacy and free expression. The IFF helped Masood draft a legal notice which was subsequently sent to the police commissioner on May 31. When even this notice was ignored, Masood moved high court.

The legal notice and the subsequent PIL pulled up the Telangana government on several points. First, it questioned the legal basis for taking photographs of citizens. The right of police to photograph citizens is governed by the Identification of Prisoners Act, 1920 and allows the police to take photographs only of individuals arrested or convicted of a crime.

It also questioned the motive behind taking these photographs, ostensibly to feed them into a database for use in FRT. Telangana is the Indian state with the highest FRT projects under development and Hyderabad is second in the world in terms of density of CCTV cameras. Worrying developments in the state, such as the government Command and Control Centre (CCC) have led international rights organisations like Amnesty International and Article 19 to raise concerns regarding the Orwellian surveillance implications.

Also read: Hyderabad ‘On The Brink Of Becoming A Total Surveillance City’, Says Amnesty

The PIL also notes that the use of FRT and other such biometric data constitutes a violation of the fundamental right to privacy and cites the Supreme Court judgement in the case of K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India & Others (2017) 10 SCC 1, where the apex court ruled that the right to privacy cannot be restricted unless this restriction is based on a law and is reasonable and proportionate.

The plea argued that Telangana’s use of FRT is wide, far-reaching and meant for mass surveillance, thus is disproportionate and the state must demonstrate probable cause for deploying the same. 

The PIL also raised the issue that there was a lack of procedural safeguards to keep the government’s mass surveillance powers in check and ensure they are exercised in a reasonable and justified manner.

The high court bench of Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma and Justice Abhinand Kumar Shavili issued notice to the state government after hearing the submissions from Masood’s legal counsel, Manoj Reddy. The case has been slated for January 15.