Meet the man who sued an Indian state over police facial recognition technology
Hyderabad, India—During the second wave of the pandemic in May 2021, social activist SQ Masood was riding his motor scooter back home with his father-in-law in tow. But as he navigated his silver-colored two-wheeler through the narrow lanes of Shahran, a Muslim-dominant neighborhood in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, he said he was pulled over by two police officers.
Masood and his father-in-law got off the motorbike thinking they would be asked to show his driver’s license or the vehicle registration card.
But they were in for something unexpected: The police officers asked both to remove their masks so that they could take mugshots of their faces using a handheld tablet—ultimately setting the stage for an ongoing legal fight over the future of facial recognition in the world’s largest democracy.
“It’s a very important challenge as it is the first of its kind,” said Anushka Jain, associate counsel for surveillance and transparency at Internet Freedom Foundation, said about a lawsuit Masood filed last December. “It could pave the way for how this harmful technology is used in India.”
According to Masood, he was far from alone that day: There were around a dozen police officers stationed several feet away from each other, where many riders were being pulled over with the same intention of capturing their image digitally.
“When I asked them why they wanted to take a picture of us, there was no answer,” Masood, 38, told The Record. “Instead, they just discussed something amongst themselves, moved back and took our photograph which captured us, the vehicle and its license plate number.”
In a hurry to get home, Masood did not question the matter further. He assumed that they would use this image and the license plate number to send him a ticket. But after waiting for a week, the thought of his image floating around in the digital devices of the city’s police officers made him uncomfortable.
He sent a legal notice to the police commissioner the same month. “I sent an email, and even mailed it, but there was no response,” said Masood. Months later in December, he filed a case against the state of Telangana, of which Hyderabad is the capital.
Masood’s request in the lawsuit is that the government of Telangana stops using facial recognition technology for law enforcement purposes. The government was notified by the court that this lawsuit was filed, but has not responded yet. As of now, a court hearing is expected in June.
Hyderabad, erstwhile famous for its food and culture has lately attained a new, infamous title: 12th most surveilled city in the world with at least 500,000 CCTVs watching the moves of its more than 10 million citizens. The city is also on the verge of launching a command and control center with two massive towers, 18- and 24-stories each, that will process all the footage from these cameras and provide a “360 degree” view of its citizens.
In the last several years, Hyderabad police and the Telangana state government have become notorious for using and deploying privacy invasive technology under the garb of governance and protection—all without any legal framework around it. This ranges from proliferation of CCTVs, piloting the use of facial recognition technology at airports and at polling booths for local elections.
This isn’t the first time Masood has filed a lawsuit against the government. Masood is an independent social activist who works with several non-governmental organizations as a consultant.
He started his career as a heritage activist where he spent time on issues regarding old monuments in the city of Hyderabad. Over the years, he expanded his work towards more social causes including minority issues. To date, he has filed around 10 legal notices against the government, including a case against the state government for deleting ration cards without any notice to cardholders.
But Masood’s legal battle against the state government over his face being scanned that day is the first of its kind, according to legal experts.
His photograph was collected using a tablet provided by the state government with a unique app on it called TSCOP.
This application was created for the Telangana State Police in 2018 and is equipped with facial recognition technology. It can compare the pictures of people with India’s national Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS) in real-time—a nationwide database that contains millions of images of known and arrested offenders, wanted people and missing people.
Masood’s fear is the misuse of his photo stored away in an unknown government-operated server.
“I have so many questions—where have they saved this photograph, where are they going to use it, what are they going to use it for, who are they going to share this database with, what category will they put my photo in,” said Masood. “It can be misused against me. I can be asked to pull over in some locations maybe just because my picture is part of the database.”
His worries aren’t unfounded.
Police in Hyderabad have a notorious track record of illegal midnight shakedowns in low income neighborhoods that are home to Muslims and immigrants. The police department in Telangana, however, has repeatedly assured that the images they collect that do not come back with a positive match are not saved anywhere. (The government representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment about Masood’s case from The Record.)
But what’s happening in Hyderabad is becoming prevalent across India today, as facial recognition technology is being used for multiple purposes from law enforcement to distribution of welfare programs and for seemingly innocuous processes like boarding at several airports.
Last year, the police in India’s capital city Delhi said that more than 10% of the arrests made during a controversial protest were through the use of facial recognition systems. In fact, India’s National Crime Records Bureau—which is responsible for collecting and analyzing criminal data—wants to build the world’s biggest facial recognition system which is expected to include features such as: integration with state facial recognition systems and being able to recognize a person with a face mask on.
Privacy experts warn that this could potentially turn into one of the largest data collection exercises to be witnessed by a democracy globally without any legal framework. “India is one of the more aggressive markets and customers of facial recognition tech,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international counsel and Asia Pacific policy director at Access Now.
“And with so many CCTVs across the country, it is radically altering the nature of what everyday looks like in India. This is a reality now that in many mega cities like Hyderabad, Delhi and even Mumbai to an extent—you are under surveillance and monitoring of some form,” Chima added.
Global civil liberties advocates have pushed for a ban using facial recognition in policing, warning that the technology could be used in ways that amplify existing biases within policing including racial profiling—something already reflected in known misindentification cases involving such tools.
But the technology is expanding rapidly, with 70% of police using some form of facial recognition technology. But with the dangers and biases that the use of this tech can bring, many countries are struggling to adapt. In 2020, 13 cities in the U.S. banned the police from using facial recognition tech.
More recently, the European Union has been discussing a ban on its police using facial recognition in public places. “Even the U.K., which is one of the world’s largest CCTV markets, has a legal framework where they have to disclose where they are operating [CCTVs], you can’t challenge them, etc,” said Chima.
And in the U.S., the IRS recently announced it would drop use of facial recognition to file taxes onlines after public reporting caused lawmakers to question the roll-out of the system.
The current lawsuit by Masood could be the beginning of such a change in India. Masood expects the state to file a counter to his suit in the coming months. Meanwhile, he says, law enforcement in the city continue to collect images of innocent citizens.
“I was going past another neighborhood recently where I saw police officers clicking pictures of some people,” said Masood. “I wish we had stood up against this sooner, but now I hope that my case leads to some kind of legislation.”