Lok Sabha 2024: EC defers plans to deploy drones and FRT in polling booths

The Election Commission has directed the NIC to cancel tender inviting bids to deploy drones and facial recognition technology during 2024 Lok Sabha elections

Representative image (photo: amritmahotsav.nic.in)
Representative image (photo: amritmahotsav.nic.in)

Shalini Sahay

Following protests by the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), the Election Commission of India (ECI) on Friday evening posted on X that it had ‘directed’ the National Informatics Centre (NIC) to cancel the tender for deployment of drones and facial recognition technology (FRT) during the upcoming general elections.

The cryptic post by an ECI spokesperson read: “When NICSI (National Informatics Centre Services Inc) tender came to notice, the Commission directed NICSI to immediately cancel it. The said tender was not floated with ECI approval. The Commission shall not allow invasion of citizens' privacy in any manner during Elections”.

Reacting to the post, Prateek Waghre, executive director at IFF, posted on X to say, “It appears that ECI has asked for the tender to be cancelled. This is a positive step. However, I feel strongly that there needs to be an investigation to understand how and why a tender with such far-reaching implications for citizens' ability to vote freely and without fear was put out in the first place. Ultimately, neither the ECI, NIC nor any other institution in India (public / private / public-private partnership) should undertake any steps that results in unwarranted and biometric surveillance of voters."

The NIC, which works under the MEITY (ministry of electronics and information technology), is unlikely to have issued the tender without approval from both the MEITY and MHA (ministry of home affairs) under Amit Shah.

Also, the tender issued without the ‘approval’ of the ECI, as the commission has stated, does not rule out the possibility that the ECI was consulted on deployment of drones and facial recognition technology; which is probably why the IFF is calling for an investigation into how the tender was issued in the first place, barely three months before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Earlier this week, the IFF had written to both the ECI and NIC, and outlined the various kinds of harm that election surveillance could do, including "voter intimidation, overbroad surveilling and profiling of voters, exclusion errors with facial recognition", besides privacy concerns.

While NIC claimed the deployment of technology and drones was meant to maintain "law & order" during the 2024 general elections, the IFF in its letters pointed out that extensive deployment of surveillance tech would infringe on the right to privacy and could lead to voter intimidation. “Citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy while exercising their right to vote, which will be compromised by a monitored voter booth,” it added.

“If the Union govt wants to ensure free & fair elections, FRT is not the way to go about it. With large inaccuracy rates and non-transparent computing processes, FRT will disenfranchise many voters on the basis of gender, age, complexion & affect marginalised communities,” the communication from IFF read.

The IFF concluded by saying, “Repeated and omnipresent use of FRT results in reducing citizens to a single transactable datapoint & facilitates the creation of a 360-degree profile, leading to unauthorised profiling across various domains, & raising serious concerns about data misuse”.

Describing the step as unnecessary and disproportionate, the IFF apprehended that it would impact the right of voters and urged the ECI and NIC to immediately roll back the plans of introducing surveillance technology in polling booths.

There is more than meets the eye here, because this is not the first time that attempts have been made to introduce surveillance in polling booths. The ECI had planned to introduce FRT-based voter-verification in the Karnataka assembly elections last year as well.

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