Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Automated Facial Recognition System of India and its Implications

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Vaishnavi Krishna Mohan

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Automated Facial Recognition System of India and its Implications


Global Views 360

Publication Date

February 2, 2021


CCTV in operation

CCTV in operation | Source: Rich Smith via Unsplash

On 28th of June 2019, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) opened bids and invited Turnkey Solution providers to implement a centralized Automated Facial Recognition System, or AFRS, in India. As the name suggests, AFRS is a facial recognition system which was proposed by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, geared towards modernizing the police force and to identify and track criminals using Facial Recognition Technology, or FRT.

The aforementioned technology uses databases of photos collected from criminal records, CCTV cameras, newspapers and media, driver’s license and government identities to collect facial data of people. FRT then identifies the people and uses their biometrics to map facial features and geometry of the face. The software then creates a “facial signature” based on the information collected. A mathematical formula is associated with each facial signature and it is subsequently compared to a database of known faces.

This article explores the implications of implementing Automated Facial Recognition technology in India.

Facial recognition software has become widely popular in the past decade. Several countries have been trying to establish efficient Facial Recognition systems for tackling crime and assembling an efficient criminal tracking system. Although there are a few potential benefits of using the technology, those benefits seem to be insignificant when compared to the several concerns about privacy and safety of people that the technology poses.

Images of every person captured by CCTV cameras and other sources will be regarded as images of potential criminals and will be matched against the Crime and Criminal Tracking Networks and Systems database (CCTNS) by the FRT. This implies that all of us will be treated as potential criminals when we walk past a CCTV camera. As a consequence, the assumption of “innocent until proven guilty” will be turned on its head.

You wouldn’t be surprised to know that China has installed the largest centralized FRT system in the world. In China, data can be collected and analyzed from over 200 million CCTVs that the country owns. Additionally, there are 20 million specialized facial recognition cameras which continuously collect data for analysis. These systems are currently used by China to track and manipulate the behavior of ethnic Uyghur minorities in the camps set up in Xinjiang region. FRT was also used by China during democracy protests of Hong Kong to profile protestors to identify them. These steps raised concerns worldwide about putting an end to a person’s freedom of expression, right to privacy and basic dignity.

It is very likely that the same consequences will be faced by Indians if AFRS is established across the country.

There are several underlying concerns about implementing AFRS.

Firstly, this system has proven to be inefficient in several instances. In August 2018, Delhi police used a facial recognition system which was reported to have an accuracy rate of 2%. The FRT software used by the UK's Metropolitan Police returned more than a staggering 98% of false positives. Another instance was when American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) used Amazon’s face recognition software known as “Rekognition” to compare the images of the legislative members of American Congress with a database of criminal mugshots. To Amazon’s embarrassment, the results included 28 incorrect matches.. Another significant evidence of inefficiency was the outcome of an experiment performed by McAfee.  Here is what they did. The researchers used an algorithm known as CycleGAN which is used for image translation. CycleGAN is a software expert at morphing photographs. One can use the software to change horses into zebras and paintings into photographs. McAfee used the software to misdirect the Facial recognition algorithm. The team used 1500 photos of two members and fed them into CycleGAN which morphed them into one another and kept feeding the resulting images into different facial recognition algorithms to check who it recognized. After generating hundreds of such images, CycleGAN eventually generated a fake image which looked like person ‘A’ to the naked eye but managed to trick the FRT into thinking that it was person ‘B’. Owing to the dissatisfactory results, researchers expressed their concern about the inefficiency of FRTs. In fact mere eye-makeup can fool the FRT into allowing a person on a no-flight list to board the flight. This trend of inefficiency in the technology was noticed worldwide.

Secondly, facial recognition systems use machine learning technology. It is concerning and uncomfortable to note that FRT has often reflected the biases deployed in the society. Consequently, leading to several facial mismatches. A study by MIT shows that FRT routinely misidentifies people of color, women and young people. While the error rate was 8.1% for men, it was 20.6% for women. The error for women of color was 34%. The error values in the “supervised study” in a laboratory setting for a sample population is itself simply unacceptable. In the abovementioned American Civil Liberties Union study, the false matches were disproportionately African American and people of color. In India, 55% of prisoners undertrial are either Dalits, Adivasis, or Muslims although the combined population of all three just amounts to 39% of the total population (2011 census). If AFRS is trained on these records, it would definitely deploy the same socially held prejudices against the minority communities. Therefore, displaying inaccurate matches. The tender issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs had no indication of eliminating these biases nor did it have any mention of human-verifiable results. Using a system embedded with societal bias to replace biased human judgement defeats claims of technological neutrality. Deploying FRT systems in law enforcement will be ineffective at best and disastrous at worst.

Thirdly, the concerns of invasion of privacy and mass surveillance hasn’t been addressed satisfactorily. Facial Recognition makes data protection almost impossible as publicly available information is collected but they are analyzed to a point of intimacy. India does not have a well established data protection law given that “Personal data Protection Bill” is yet to be enforced. Implementing AFRS in the absence of a safeguard is a potential threat to our personal data. Moreover, police and other law enforcement agencies will have a great degree of discretion over our data which can lead to a mission creep. To add on to the list of privacy concerns, the bidder of AFRS will be largely responsible for maintaining confidentiality and integrity of data which will be stored apart from the established ISO standard. Additionally, the tender has no preference to “Make in India'' and shows absolutely no objections to foreign bidders and even to those having their headquarters in China, the hub of data breach .The is no governing system or legal limitations and restrictions to the technology. There is no legal standard set to ensure proportional use and protection to those who non-consensually interact with the system. Furthermore, the tender does not mention the definition of a “criminal”. Is a person considered a criminal when a charge sheet is filed against them? Or is it when the person is arrested? Or is it an individual convicted by the Court? Or is it any person who is a suspect? Since the word “criminal” isn’t definitely defined in the tender, the law enforcement agencies will ultimately be able to track a larger number of people than required.

The notion that AFRS will lead to greater efficacy must be critically questioned. San Francisco imposed a total ban on police use of facial recognition in May, 2019. Police departments in London are pressurized to put a stop to the use of FRT after several instances of discrimination and inefficiency. It would do well to India to learn from the mistakes of other countries rather than committing the same.

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July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

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