For the last few months, India has witnessed protests across the length and breadth of the country. The target of protesters’ ire has been the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA), which aims to amend the definition of illegal immigrant for Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Parsi refugees from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries. Though this would result in citizenship for these refugees, the CAA does not make a similar allowance for Muslims.
While India’s security forces have hit the streets to clamp down on anti-CAA demonstrations, police in Delhi have relied heavily on technology. The Delhi Police resorted to its Automated Facial Recognition System (AFRS) software—initially set up to track missing children—to surveil a political rally headlined by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The technology allows the police to match photos of subjects against a set of large databases. In the case of the rally, police officers matched attendees to video footage collected at the ongoing protests, allowing for the identification of potential rabble-rousers.
While the intention may seem understandable, the video surveillance and tracking of these ‘suspects’ has no legal basis. At present, the century-old Identification of Prisoners Act (IPA), only allows for the capture of fingerprints of prisoners as long as they are in jail. Once a prisoner is acquitted, the authorities are required to erase the record. In reality, authorities rarely comply with even this.
If the Union government has its way, however, this is set to change. Drastically.
For over two years now, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)—the technology and statistical arm of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)—has been working to amend the IPA. It aims to widen the scope of collection of all key biometrics, its storage, and the duration for which this data can be stored.
According to a high-ranking official working closely with the NCRB, the division’s Central Finger Print Bureau submitted nine amendments to the IPA. The home ministry has assimilated these in the form of a new Bill —the Identification of Prisoners and Arrested Persons Bill, 2020. It will likely be tabled in the Monsoon session of Parliament, which begins in July, the official said. Another official involved in the drafting of the Bill confirmed this, saying it would also legitimise this sort of data as evidence—something that has previously been a grey area.
If passed in its current form, the Bill will provide legislative backing far beyond the mere collection of fingerprints. The biometrics it will include range from foot and palm prints to photos, iris and retina images, voice samples, and even vein patterns.
Crucially, the Bill allows police agencies to collect biometric samples of not just prisoners and arrested persons but also individuals summoned for interrogation, as per section 41A of the Code of Criminal Procedure.