Kerala government has issued a request for proposals from artificial intelligence companies to develop a real-time mass surveillance and facial identification system to be deployed across the state.
The surveillance cameras will be connected to powerful computers, and any person whose name has been entered into the system will be detected the minute he or she steps in front of any of the cameras installed across the state.
Permanent cameras will be placed in road junctions, bus stands, railway stations and other public places, while mobile units can be deployed on demand in trouble spots and protest venues.
The request for proposals has been issued in the name of K-DISC or Kerala Development & Innovation Strategic Council, which describes itself as “a strategic think-tank and advisory body” constituted by the Government of Kerala.
A pilot for the scheme will be carried out in three localities in Thiruvanathapuram, including the Thampanoor bus stand.
At present, such surveillance methods are widely used in China, where every citizen is set to have a ‘file’ opened in his or her name in a mass surveillance effort called ‘social credit system’ by next year.
Once the system is set up across the state, police officers will be able to enter any person’s name and Aadhaar number and immediately get to know where that person is at that moment.
If that person is not at any public place where a camera is installed, then the system will tell the police where that person was last seen.
It can also be used to set ‘alerts’ based on a ‘watch list’.
If anyone on the watch list comes in front of any of the thousands of cameras that will eventually be connected to the system, an alert is generated immediately and a message is sent to the police.
Every person, innocent or guilty, who passes in front of the camera will have his or her photo taken.
This photo is then uploaded to the main computer, which will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to rapidly compare the facial features of that person with facial features of everyone in the watch list. If a match is found, an alert is sent to the police.
What is not clear is whether the photograph will be deleted from the system if there is no match, or whether it will be retained for mass tracking and surveillance, as is done in China.
Mass surveillance is possible today due to the availability of cheap computing power and advances in software, allowing governments to keep track of all the citizens’ locations on a real-time basis.
The system planned in Kerala can also work when the identity of the person is not known — like in case of a protest, or violence or a social media video.
This is made clear in the request for proposal, which says that the software should be able to extract facial recognition data from any video or photo, and then add it to the watch list.
Because of this, even if a person is totally unknown to the police and has no criminal records of any kind, he or she can be arrested if any video of that person doing anything illegal is found on social media.
Social media is a treasure trove of videos showing people doing illegal things — such as burning flags, killing dogs, exposing themselves, abusing political leaders and businessmen and so on.
Once the system is fully functional, people who are featured in such viral videos doing such activities can be immediately arrested using the watch list and alert system, as soon as they step out onto the road or any other public place.
The system will also be used to track down people who have run away from their homes or are otherwise reported missing. This may be bad news for lovers, as many families file missing person complaints when their daughters ‘run away’ with their boyfriends due to opposition from the family to the relationship.
The system will also be used widely by the traffic police to identify drivers in case of hit-and-run accidents and other violations like jumping the signal, dangerous driving and so on.
Kerala police is learnt to have understood the importance of such systems during the recent protests against the government on the Sabarimala temple entry issue.
The protests, which saw participation from lakhs of people across the state, generated copious amounts of videos showing people protesting — with some protestors indulging in violence, stone throwing etc..
However, the police could not easily identify all the protestors as they came from across the state. Eventually, photographs of many of these protestors were released to the media for help in identification.
However, under the new system, the police will be able to deploy mobile cameras in locations where protests are taking place, capturing the faces of people at the location and identifying them in real time.
Once the new system is put in place, protestors will have to use face masks to avoid giving their facial recognition data to cameras, as is being done in Hong Kong in recent days.
The last date for submitting proposals for the supply artificial intelligence-based, real-time facial recognition software to K-DISC is Sept 24.
It remains to be seen whether the system can withstand legal scrutiny.
The Supreme Court recently struck down a law that made it mandatory for citizens to submit their unique identification numbers to have private sector services such as telephones, banking and so on.
In Justice K. S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) and Anr. vs Union Of India And Ors, the Supreme Court of India ruled that ‘privacy’ is a fundamental right of a citizen.
The nine-judge bench unanimously held in 2017 that “the right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution”.