Surveillance nation: India spies on world's largest population
A silhouette is surrounded by security cameras in this illustration. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nura Ali
What’s the context?
Increased digitisation and policing of online content have led to greater surveillance of India's population and privacy violations
- India poised to become world's most populous nation
- Increased digitisation of services has led to greater surveillance, activists say
- Authorities say surveillance needed to curb crime
Khadeer Khan was arrested in the south Indian city of Hyderabad in January after police claimed to have identified him from CCTV footage as a suspect in a chain snatching incident. He was released a few days later, and died while being treated for injuries he allegedly sustained while in custody.
The police said Khan was arrested because he looked like the man seen in the CCTV footage.
"When it was ruled out that Khadeer was not the one who had committed the crime, he was released. Everything was done as per procedure," said K. Saidulu, a deputy superintendent of police.
But human rights activists say the 36-year-old was clearly misidentified - a growing risk with the widespread use of CCTV in Telangana state, which has among the highest concentrations of the surveillance technology in the country.
"We have been warning for many years that CCTV and facial recognition technology can be misused for harassment, and that they can misidentify people," said S.Q. Masood, a human rights activist who filed a lawsuit in 2021 challenging the use of facial recognition in Telangana that is still ongoing.
"This case has exposed just how harmful it can be," he told Context.
Across the country, the use of CCTV and facial recognition is increasing in schools, airports, train stations, prisons and streets as authorities roll out a nationwide system to curb crime and identify missing children.
It's not the only form of surveillance in the country.
The biometric national ID Aadhaar, with some 1.3 billion IDs issued, is linked to dozens of databases including bank accounts, vehicle registrations, SIM cards and voters' lists, while the National Intelligence Grid aims to link nearly two dozen databases of government agencies for citizen profiles.
Meanwhile, policing of the internet has also grown, with greater monitoring of social media, and the most frequent internet shutdowns in the world.
Authorities say they are needed to improve governance and bolster security in a severely under-policed country. But technology experts say there is little correlation to crime, and that they violate privacy and target vulnerable people.
"Everything's being digitised, so there's a lot of information about a person being generated that is accessible to the government and to private entities without adequate safeguards," said Anushka Jain, legal counsel at Internet Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group in Delhi.
"At a time when people are attacked for their religion, language and sexual identity, the easy availability of these data can be very harmful. It can also result in individuals losing access to welfare schemes, to public transport or the right to protest whenever the government deems it necessary."
Birth to death
India is poised to become the world's most populous country in April, overtaking China with more than 1.43 billion people, according to estimates by the United Nations.
The government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has prioritised the Digital India programme to improve efficiency and streamline welfare schemes by digitising everything from land titles to health records to payments.
Aadhaar - the world's largest biometric database - underpins many of these initiatives, and is mandatory for welfare, pension and employment schemes, despite a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that it cannot be a requirement for welfare programmes.
"The government claims linking to Aadhaar brings better governance, but it will lead to a totalitarian society because the government knows every individual's profile," said Srinivas Kodali at Free Software Movement of India, an advocacy group.
"The goal is to track everyone from birth to death. Anything linked to Aadhaar eventually ends up with the ministry of home affairs, and the policing and surveillance agencies, so dissent against the government becomes very difficult," he added.
The ministry of home affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
The latest iteration of digitisation is Digi Yatra, which was rolled out at the Delhi, Bengaluru and Varanasi airports in December. It allows passengers to use their Aadhaar ID and facial recognition for check-ins at airports.
The ministry of civil aviation has said Digi Yatra leads to "reduced wait time and makes the boarding process faster and more seamless," with dedicated lanes for those using the app.
But those who choose to not use Digi Yatra may be viewed with suspicion and subject to additional checks, said Kodali.
The data - including travel details - can also be shared with other government agencies, and may be used to put people on no-fly lists, and stop activists, journalists and dissenters from travelling, as is already happening, said Kodali.
The ministry of civil aviation did not respond to a request for comment.
Some of the lowest-paid public-sector workers in India bear the brunt of the government's surveillance mechanisms.
Municipal workers across the country are required to wear GPS-enabled watches that are equipped with a camera that takes snapshots, and a microphone that can listen in on conversations.
The watches feed a stream of data to a central control room, where officials monitor the movements of each employee, and link the data to performance and salaries.
Authorities have said the goal is to improve efficiency. Workers across the country have protested the surveillance.
In January, the federal government said that the National Mobile Monitoring Software (NMMS) app would be mandatory for all workers under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), after having rolled it out in several states last year.
Women make up nearly 60% of the more than 20 million beneficiaries nationwide who get 100 days of work in a year, and are paid a daily wage of up to 331 rupees ($4).
The new system requires the supervising officer, called a mate, to upload pictures of the labourers when they start work and when they finish, as proof of their attendance, which was marked in manual logs earlier.
But this requires the mate - usually a woman - to have a smartphone and a stable internet connection twice a day, which is near impossible in many rural areas, said Rakshita Swamy, a researcher with the non-profit Peoples' Action for Employment Guarantee.
"If the pictures don't get uploaded, the workers are considered absent, and they don't get paid for the work," she said.
"There is also hesitation among the women about having their pictures taken. There is no transparency about what happens to these photographs - it's highly likely that they are being used to train facial recognition algorithms," she added.
Hundreds of NREGS workers are holding a protest in Delhi, calling for payment of back wages and doing away with the app.
The ministry of rural development has said the app would lead to "more transparency and ensure proper monitoring" of workers, without addressing surveillance concerns.
A long-delayed data protection law, which is awaiting passage in parliament, would offer little recourse as it gives sweeping exceptions to government agencies, say privacy experts.
In Rajasthan state, which has among the highest number of internet shutdowns in the country, Kamla Devi, a mate in Ajmer district, has struggled with the NMMS app for several months.
"On many days, there's no network, and I tell the workers to go home. There's no point if they work because they won't get paid," she said.
"This app is ruining livelihoods. It was better when we had a manual attendance log."
($1 = 82.9249 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Rina Chandran; Editing by Zoe Tabary.)
Part of:India: the world's most populous nation
Updated: March 24, 2023
- Facial recognition
- Data rights