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Regulatory innovation to watch the watchmen: IFF and the launch of project Panoptic

Devishi Gupta,

Student, Jindal Global Law School,


(Editorial Intern, Indian Society of Artificial Intelligence and Law)


Past creations and evolving eras have proven to us time and yet again that ‘necessity is the mother of all inventions’. One such creation is the facial recognition technology that is now seeing the light of the day. It is reasonably a new technology, being introduced by law enforcement agencies around the globe today to identify humans of interest. With the help of automated biometric software, this system can easily identify or verify a person by comparing and analyzing facial features such as patterns, shapes, and proportions. We all know that technology will inevitably change the way we live, socialize, eat, and work, possibly like no other technology ever has. Come to think of it, it already has. The coronavirus pandemic is a living proof in history where technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, informed, productive, and connected. There is no denying that Technology and Artificial intelligence inevitably is our future. With growing advancements, the day is not far when practically AI might replace human beings and the government to take over the world. Therefore, it is fundamentally important to regulate these machines and bring about necessary international and domestic legal laws to cater to these advancements.

The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) is a non-governmental organization that conducts advocacy on digital rights and liberties, established in New Delhi. The work of the NGO essentially includes filing petitions and undertaking advocacy campaigns to defend online freedom, privacy, net neutrality, and innovation. The IFF recently started a project called ‘Panoptic’ which aims to bring transparency and accountability to the significant government stakeholders involved in the deployment and implementation of facial recognition technology (FRT) projects in India.


Working in the 1960s, Bledsoe developed a system that could classify photos of faces by hand using what’s known as a RAND tablet, a device that people could use to input horizontal and vertical coordinates on a grid using a stylus that emitted electromagnetic pulses. The system could be used to manually record the coordinate locations of various facial features including the eyes, nose, hairline, and mouth. In the 1970s, Goldstein, Harmon, and Lesk were able to add increased accuracy to a manual facial recognition system. They used 21 specific subjective markers including lip thickness and hair color to identify faces automatically. In 1988, Sirovich and Kirby began applying linear algebra to the problem of facial recognition. What became known as the Eigenface approach started as a search for a low-dimensional representation of facial images. In 1991, Turk and Pentland expanded upon the Eigenface approach by discovering how to detect faces within images. This led to the first instances of automatic face recognition. Their approach was constrained by technological and environmental factors, but it was a significant breakthrough in proving the feasibility of automatic facial recognition.

Beginning in 2010, Facebook began implementing facial recognition functionality that helped identify people whose faces may be featured in the photos that Facebook users update daily. This was known as ‘tagging’ people. While the feature was instantly controversial with the news media, sparking a slew of privacy-related articles, Facebook users at large did not seem to mind. Having no apparent negative impact on the website’s usage or popularity, more than 350 million photos are uploaded and tagged using face recognition each day now. Apple released the iPhone X in 2017, advertising face recognition as one of its primary new features. The face recognition system in the phone is used for device security. In 2011, the government of Panama, partnering with then-U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, authorized a pilot program of FaceFirst’s facial recognition platform to cut down on illicit activity in Panama’s Tocumen airport (known as a hub for drug smuggling and organized crime). Shortly after implementation, the system resulted in the apprehension of multiple Interpol suspects. Pleased with the success of the initial deployment, FaceFirst expanded into the facility’s north terminal. The FaceFirst implementation at Tocumen remains the largest biometrics installation at an airport to date. The new model of iPhone in 2017 sold out almost instantly, proving that consumers now accept facial recognition as the new gold standard for security (1).

From tagging people on pictures on platforms like Facebook or Instagram and sending virtual facial snaps on Snapchat to using the facial recognition security for phone locks and facial detection for forensics by law enforcement and military professionals, it is considered as one of the most effective ways to recognize dead bodies. Facial recognition was used to help check the identity of Osama bin Laden after he was killed in a U.S. raid. In India, at least 32 Facial Recognition Technology systems, estimated at Rs 1,063 crore, are in different stages of deployment by union ministries, central agencies, and several state governments, including Telangana and Gujarat.


Today, India is considered as the hub of Information Technology developments and has shown and persistently followed some remarkable tech trends in the country. With the invention of AI, machine learning, blockchain, and IoT, India has implemented some of the significant-tech trends being observed worldwide. It is among the topmost countries in the world in the field of scientific research, positioned as one of the top five nations in the field of space exploration. India ranked 52 in the Global Innovation Index (GII)-2019. It moved up to the fifth rank in Global R&D Funding Forecast in 2020. Modern India has had robust attention on science and technology, apprehending that it is a key element for economic growth. Virtual reality and augmented reality are already turning heads with their innovative and interactive technology. Many apps have collaborated with Artificial Intelligence (AI) & integrated trending tech in their interface, developers have been able to stack up applications enabling a realistic augmented reality to use apps recognize & visualize things through the phone’s camera. Many apps like Snapchat use AR tech to detect facial features and apply almost any filter on the person’s face in Snapchat’s picture (2).

Facial recognition technologies are slowly becoming ubiquitous in India. The Maharashtra government recently deployed the technology in Mumbai integrating with about 10,000-strong contingent of CCTV cameras. Police in Delhi, Amritsar, and Surat have been using facial recognition since as early as mid-2018. The GMR Hyderabad International Airport recently introduced it at its passenger entry points to facilitate paperless travel.

There are ample reasons to suspect the infallibility or accuracy of the technology. Research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has revealed that facial recognition algorithms consistently misidentify faces. In one case, the technology classified darker-skinned women as men 30% of the time the algorithm was used. Would you use a barcode scanner if it worked correctly only 70% of the time? In addition to inaccuracy, technology also suffers from significant biases. Facial recognition relies on Artificial Intelligence, and the bias inherent in the use and deployment of AI is currently a big problem to solve. This predominantly affects Dalits, Muslims, and tribals because they already comprise 55% of the undertrials in India despite being only 39% of the population. These biases may only get magnified with the use of AI and facial recognition (3).

Apart from this, if the government used facial tech reaches the wrong corrupt hands, it can defeat the purpose of the technology. For example- A Police officer gets permission to use the FRT by an order of the Delhi High Court for tracking missing children. Now they start using it for wider personal reasons, this might lead to an over-policing problem or problems where certain minorities are targeted without any legal backing or any oversight as to what is happening. The absence of specific laws or guidelines poses a huge threat to the fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of speech and expression because it does not satisfy the threshold the Supreme Court had set in its landmark privacy judgment in the ‘Justice K.S. Puttaswamy Vs. Union of India’ case (4).

The impact of the use of FRT on our rights can be dangerous if left without any regulation. A visual surveillance system that would be able to track you from a database of faces and find all your personal information. It can keep a check on all your movements through the city, who you meet, where you reside, and quite possibly even what you said. All of this directly affects our liberty, freedom of expression, right to assemble peacefully, right to move freely throughout the country, and specially our right to privacy. Just envision a situation where you are incorrectly identified as a suspect in criminal activity, the police manage to convince the magistrate to issue a warrant for arrest, and you find yourself in a jail cell wondering how this even came to be.


The internet freedom foundation has been working tirelessly for the past year in ensuring a track of all FRT related projects that the government is developing and deploying through an initiative called Panoptic. The organization aims to increase transparency around the implementation and use of FRT projects through the introduction of a digital public resource. This is being implemented through the deployment of an online dashboard which shows information collected on various FRT deployments projects across each state relating to the procurement, implementation, and use of facial recognition technology projects by the Government of India, State Governments, and public authorities in India. It will be a public resource that will activate informed, evidence-based advocacy for legal and technical reforms to protect and advance fundamental rights. This public resource will then be used to drive advocacy on the issue through campaigns and online advocacy. This will enable strategic litigation at the Central and State level by diverse individuals and collectives based on individual harms and injuries that may be suffered by them. The broader aim would be to drive policy changes particularly concerning data protection legislation in India as well as the introduction of specific sectoral legislation for facial recognition technology.

Panoptic would primarily be a website that will consist of an interactive map tracking the deployment of FRT systems by the government across the country. The resource will also consist of case studies specific to certain projects which will provide context for the project as well as our Right to Information findings. One of the main features of the website will be that it will be supported by IFF’s considerable RTI resources. IFF has been filing RTI requests asking for information on each project that we come across to create a database of information that will facilitate us in our drive for transparency and accountability. Through these RTIs we have been able to obtain additional information and context around these projects which shines a light on how the government aims to use these FRT systems (5).


With changing times, it’s essential that we also accept change and take one step ahead. The art of artificial intelligence is one such thing that is continuously in a learning process and is building a higher & better technology with each passing minute. The evolving & relentlessly changing technologies might both seem evasive & transient at times, but the rock-solid truth is that it forms an integral part of the business economic strategies & would always be the spine of any firm towards advancement. Facial recognition technology is something that’s being adopted by several countries now and there is no denying that what more does the future has to offer us in the tech field is yet unknown but predictable.

The Supreme Court in the Puttaswamy judgment ruled that privacy is a fundamental right even in public spaces therefore if these rights need to be infringed through the facial recognition technology, then there needs to be an introduction of specific sectoral legislation for facial recognition technology or a policy for the government to show that such action is sanctioned by law, proportionate to the need for such interference, necessary and in pursuit of a legitimate aim. Project panoptic has been started along these very lines to ensure transparency around the implementation and use of FRT projects in India. We need to actively support this initiative so that while we move ahead in the race of life and advancement, we also regulate what we have invented before it starts regulating us. Necessity is the mother of all inventions and a mother is always cautious and careful with her kids. AI is a product of necessity and should be taken care of precautiously. We can’t let it come to wrong hands under bad influence.


1. West, Jesse Davis. History of face recognition software. Face first . [Online] August 1, 2017. [Cited: January 12, 2021.]

2. Suter, Amandeep. What are the latest Technology Trends in India? . [Online] techstory productions, November 9, 2019. [Cited: January 12, 2021.]

3. Sarangal, Siddhartha. Reflections . Facial recognition technology — is India ready for it? Friday , 2019, Vol. september , 4.

4. Editor, Insights. Facial recognition technology:. insightsonindia. [Online] December 31, 2020. [Cited: January 12, 2021.]

5. IFF's Project Panoptic is (almost) here. [Online] November 6, 2020. [Cited: January 12, 2021.]


The Indian Society of Artificial Intelligence and Law is a technology law think tank founded by Abhivardhan in 2018. Our mission as a non-profit industry body for the analytics & AI industry in India is to promote responsible development of artificial intelligence and its standardisation in India.


Since 2022, the research operations of the Society have been subsumed under VLiGTA® by Indic Pacific Legal Research.

ISAIL has supported two independent journals, namely - the Indic Journal of International Law and the Indian Journal of Artificial Intelligence and Law. It also supports an independent media and podcast initiative - The Bharat Pacific.

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