from the all-seeing-eye-hoping-to-see-all-the-eyes dept
Back in 2017, the Indian government — having collected at least some biometric records from most of its 1.2 billion citizens — did what was previously considered unthinkable: it opened up access to these records to anyone willing to pay for the privilege. What had been collected involuntarily was sold to private companies for use in verifying users’ identification and, presumably, to find more efficient ways to sell them goods and services.
This obviously presented a tasty target for malicious hackers, who were soon selling database login credentials for as little as $8, allowing other malicious people to scoop up a wealth of identifiable info to misuse.
The government’s collection is going to become even bigger if proposed legislation passes. Most of the country’s population is already in existing databases, having contributed some form of biometric information for the purposes of identification by the government and/or private companies. More involuntary contributions would add even more to the government’s biometric stockpile, as the BBC reports.
The Criminal Procedure (Identification) bill, which was passed in parliament last week, makes it compulsory for those arrested or detained to share sensitive data – like iris and retina scans. The police can retain this data for up to 75 years. The bill will now be sent to the president for his assent.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who has proven willing to abuse nearly any available law to target critics — claims this is exactly what the country needs to combat criminal activity. Modi claims the new collection will “modernize policing” and “increase the conviction rate.” Both assertions may be true, but those cannot be the only concerns addressed by legislation like this.
A recent Indian Supreme Court decision upheld the right of Indian citizens to be free of pervasive, unjustified state surveillance. This law will likely be challenged if passed. And the government is going to need a lot more than the assumption more criminals will be convicted to survive a constitutional challenge.
But, as it stands now, there’s not much in the way of privacy laws in India. Modi is at least correct on one thing: the nation’s laws do need to be updated to address the realities of the twenty-first century. The last law governing collection of info from prisoners was passed in 1920. And it limits collection to photographs, footprint impressions, and fingerprints from those who have been convicted or charged with offenses punishable with more than a year in prison.
This law would strip almost all of those restrictions and vastly increase the amount of biometric and personal information collected by the government.
It does not specify what these “biological samples” are but experts say it likely implies collection of DNA and blood. The police currently require a warrant to collect these samples.
The new law, however, massively expands its ambit to include other sensitive information such as fingerprints, retina scans, behavioural attributes – like signatures and handwriting – and other “biological samples”.
This collection would not be limited to convicts and people charged with serious crimes. It would allow officers to collect these “samples” from people who have been arrested or detained, prior to them being charged. And if they’re never charged, the government apparently still gets to hold onto their information for decades.
What it will be really great for is helping Prime Minister Modi keep tabs on his critics. Protesters will be tagged and bagged, served up for ongoing surveillance by federal and local law enforcement. Presumably, the database will be accessible by the PM and his cabinet, allowing them to more directly keep an eye on dissidents, mouthy journalists, and political opponents who’ve been detained solely for the purpose of harvesting biometric data.
It’s a truly dangerous proposal. Unfortunately, the people currently in power in India are more than happy to continue passing self-serving laws that make it easier to ensure they’ll retain their power for decades to come.