Zahoor Ahmad was 15 when he was first detained by the Kashmir police in 2017. He was picked up from his classroom, and as police dragged him out, he recalls them saying, “we have you on video.” The detention came a few months after Ahmad had participated in a protest in his locality in Srinagar against the killing of over 120 civilians during an uprising sparked by the police encounter of a popular militant commander.
At the police station, Ahmad was shown multiple videos of the protest — shot by bystanders, journalists, and the Indian forces cameras. Even though he refused to accept his participation, he was detained for 33 days in a local police station. “They stuck to the video and said, referring to a masked-person: ‘This is you’,” Ahmad said. “They beat me up continuously and asked me to identify other protesters.”
Two years later, in August 2019, when there were protests against the Narendra Modi government’s decision to revoke the region’s limited autonomy in Ahmad’s neighborhood, the police came after him again. “We weren’t able to sleep at night — the drones were always overhead,” he said. “The police watch every movement in Kashmir.”
Kashmiris might soon be in for even fiercer scrutiny as the Indian government is now set to introduce facial recognition technology (FRT) for policing in the region for the first time.
There are concerns FRT will further clamp down their rights in one of the world’s most militarized zones. “Earlier, they hunted us with regular cameras. Now, this technology will change the entire situation,” Ahmad told Rest of World. “Yeh ab naya keeda hai.” (This is a new bug.)
The Kashmir region, which is at the center of a territorial conflict between India and Pakistan, is overtly securitized, with a heavy military presence on the streets. Their mobile bunkers and vehicles, laden with high-resolution cameras, patrol the streets, while CCTV cameras and drones are being pushed in the region relentlessly.
At least 300 new cameras have been installed in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir this year, according to a regional newspaper. The police have claimed that FRT will assist in “preempting and preventing attacks” on the forces’ personnel by militants.
The Kashmir police department overlooking the project told Rest of World the technology will be implemented in the city at the soonest. However, the designated officer refused to disclose the nature of the database that will be maintained using the new technology. The Kashmir police chief and his deputies didn’t respond to requests for interviews by Rest of World.
Critics and activists told Rest of World that use of FRT will further breach the private and public lives of Kashmiris, and pose risks of improper data maintenance that could be used to crack down on civil liberties. “In Kashmir, the presence of the police and military is already extremely high and the population is being overpoliced,” said Anushka Jain, associate counsel for surveillance and transparency at the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), a non-profit. “The introduction of FRT would power the police to target the people more accurately. This will only lead to more human rights violations.”
Activists worry about the lack of laws governing data and privacy in India. Currently, “there are no laws at all in India to regulate the usage of facial recognition technology,” Jain said. “There are no data protection laws with regard to FRT, or an SOP [standard operating procedure] to navigate here. There is literally nothing.”
Earlier this week, a Joint Parliamentary Committee introduced the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 in the Indian Parliament. However, the regulation around FRT didn’t make it to the draft. That leaves ample vague space for its use — and misuse, said Jain.
In 2020, during the massive protests against the Indian government’s decision to introduce a new citizenship law, which many considered to be discriminatory towards Muslims, the Delhi police arrested more than 130 persons identified using FRT. India’s home minister, Amit Shah had said at the time that the police used “election voter ID, driving licence and other details” to identify more than 1,100 people.
“If the police use FRT on protestors to systematically target the people protesting against the government, then a country stops being a democracy,” said Jain, of IFF. “If the government doesn’t even allow a peaceful protest, it would hamper the ideal of democracy.”