Police in India's Uttar Pradesh state using facial recognition technology to track known sex offenders

Uttar Pradesh has been seeking to curb crimes against women.
Uttar Pradesh has been seeking to curb crimes against women.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Police in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh will use facial recognition to track sex offenders in the latest use of a technology that many argue throws up issues of privacy.

The northern state has been seeking to curb crimes against women with a series of actions - some controversial - even as it has seen some of the worst crimes, including last year's horrific gang-rape and death of a 19-year-old woman.

Last September, the Uttar Pradesh police faced flak for hurriedly conducting the funeral of the victim, who died after allegedly being assaulted by four men who are now on trial.

Shortly after, the state government launched Mission Shakti, a series of schemes that includes the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition. "Shakti" means strength in Hindi.

The technology is being used in Lucknow, the state capital.

"We have the software and all strategic locations are being equipped with cameras which will be AI-enabled and linked to a control room," Lucknow Inspector-General Laxmi Singh told The Straits Times.

"The idea is that since we have a computerised database of all perpetrators (related to sexual crimes), this data can be fed into the system. As and when any perpetrator comes within city limits, a red flag will be generated and the movement of the perpetrator monitored so that the same kind of crime is not committed."

The police had earlier received flak for suggesting that it would be the women in public spaces who would be tracked through facial recognition for signs of distress.

"The resolution is of high quality but whether expressions can be seen or not, it remains to be seen. We are not curtailing anyone's freedom of movement or speech. It is only if some person has committed a crime," said Ms Singh.

The suggestion had sparked widespread criticism, with privacy advocates concerned about the plan.

"The FRT (facial recognition technology) would detect and analyse the face, extract all information on that person and then reject them as a sex offender. Through this process of elimination only will they be able to check for and identify sex offenders entering the city of Lucknow. Thus, every person will be surveilled," said Ms Anushka Jain, an associate counsel from the Internet Freedom Foundation.

"Since, we have no FRT regulation or data protection law in place, this... could potentially lead to privacy violations and data breaches that people will have no knowledge of. This is because of the lack of transparency in how this technology is being used as well as an absence of any oversight body as far as we know."

Sex crimes against women is an area of concern in India.

India recorded 405,861 cases of crimes against women in 2019, an increase of 7.3 per cent over 2018, according to the National Crime Record Bureau.

Uttar Pradesh, with 200 million people, is the most populous state in India. It also had the highest number of cases of crimes against women and children, with 59,853 cases in 2019. The state's efforts to curb sex crimes has remained patchy.

"They are not streamlining institutions. There is a lot of impunity in the Uttar Pradesh system. In the minds of aggressors or criminals, they know they will get away," said Ms Ranjana Kumari, who heads the Centre for Social Research, a Delhi-based non-profit group. "Tracking known sex offenders is a good idea. But they should not use it (for other purposes, such as) to target political opponents."

The Uttar Pradesh government has faced flak for earlier schemes.

The state has deployed hundreds of police in so called anti-Romeo squads, targeting young men loitering outside women's colleges, schools and public spaces. This has attracted criticism for moral policing after the squads went after couples, among others.

Last year, the government came up with a plan to name and shame sex offenders by putting up posters in public spaces. The initiative was seen to be a non-starter.

Ms Singh said there is now a greater effort to tackle issues related to crimes against women, including sensitisation of police, setting up of women's cells, where victim do not need to wait for a senior police official to record their statement, and pink booths where women can seek immediate help if they are facing harassment.

"Ultimately, the use of modern technology has to become part of policing in everyday life," she said.