Under the Thumb

A new legislation expands the government’s surveillance powers

Police collect photographs of auto drivers and passengers during stop-and-search operations in Telangana COURTESY SHO LANGER HOUSE

By March 2021, the National Crime Records Bureau—the apex body maintaining crime- and criminal-related databases—had a record of eight million fingerprints in its National Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Much of it was collected, it is assumed, under the purview of either the Identification of Prisoners Act, 1920, or various state regulations. A lot of what has been collected, though, goes beyond the sanction of the law. For instance, there are the recent reports of police in Telangana and Madhya Pradesh collecting fingerprints and photographs during stop-and-search operations. It would seem that, so far, state desire for greater surveillance and the eagerness to adopt new technologies for this purpose has been checked only by the absence of physical infrastructure to store the quantities of data and not by any legal framework or procedural safeguards aimed at protecting citizens’ rights.

Over the last five years, the NCRB has moved to remove curtails by inviting private companies to help create the infrastructure for both the NAFIS and its National Automated Facial Recognition System. While the NAFIS is expected to store the fingerprints of 15 million people, the NAFRS proposal mentions storing 50 million facial images. Several states, including Telangana and Karnataka, are also in the process of shoring up their own data storage infrastructure through the creation of massive data centres. These developments have brought governments closer to solving the physical-capacity problem.

In April, Parliament passed the Criminal Procedure (Identification) Act, which takes care of the legal infrastructure needed to legitimise its data collection. The act—passed amid objections from opposition parties and without consultation with civil society—allows the police to take “measurements of convicts and other persons for the purpose of identification and investigation in criminal matters.” The 1920 legislation permitted the collection of only fingerprints, footprints and photographs of convicts, those arrested for offences punishable by rigorous imprisonment and those ordered to execute bonds for maintaining peace and good behaviour. The new act expands the categories of measurements to include iris and retina scans, biological samples and behavioural attributes.

The act’s overreach in restricting the rights to privacy and equality, as well as the right against self-incrimination, has been written about by various commentators. Moreover, although the act does not directly mention surveillance, it has the potential to vastly increase the government’s powers to snoop on citizens. While discussing the legislation in the Rajya Sabha, the home minister, Amit Shah, said that it would address low conviction rates by building the forensic and scientific capacity of the country’s law enforcement agencies. The claim that forensic evidence is the gold standard of good criminal investigations needs to be evaluated and this could be done using a comparative lens.