Surveillance tech firms cash in as govt agencies have a look in

BENGALURU: The surveillance technology industry in India is booming, industry players said, helped by demand from law enforcement and intelligence agencies despite growing privacy and accuracy concerns from activists and academicians.

Central and state governments across the country have started using surveillance recognition technology to identify criminals, missing persons and dead bodies. Some states are even using software tools to mine data on social media to check for potential threats to law and order.

Indian startups including Videonetics, Innefu Labs, FaceTagr and StaqU are key players, apart from US-based Verint Systems and Japan’s NEC. “We have seen tremendous demand from the government, with 60% of our revenue coming from the government,” said Tinku Acharya, MS, Videonetics, which is backed by GenNext Ventures, the corporate venture arm of Reliance Industries and Cisco Systems. The company expects to grow at least 50-60% this year. “We work with both central and state governments across 136 cities in India. We work with smart cities, law enforcement and with the army through system integrators,” Acharya added.

TechSci Research estimates that India’s facial recognition market will grow six-fold by 2024 to $4.3 billion, nearly on par with China.

Industry players are also bullish about the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB’s) plan to build a system to centralise facial recognition data captured through surveillance cameras across India. It would link up with databases containing records for everything from passports to fingerprints to help India’s understaffed police force. “Demand is growing from law enforcement agencies. Facial recognition is becoming mainstream in India. Earlier, we were seeing demand only from smart cities, but now police departments across India want surveillance,” said Vijay Gnanadesikan, CEO at Facetagr. “The demand has shot up. Security has become critical for the nation. Law enforcement agencies are behind criminals in the use of technology,” said Tarun Wig, cofounder at Innefu Labs. “Most countries treat technology companies as an extension of their intelligence arm.”

Innefu Labs works extensively with armed forces and law enforcement agencies in several states. Its technology was used to surveil people protesting against the citizenship law in Delhi. It also works with the Maharashtra and J&K Police. “When we started in 2016-end, police were sceptical of the technology. The police and the government are more adaptive now. With roti, kapda, makaan (food, clothing and shelter)… security is the next thing,” said Atul Rai, CEO of Staqu Technologies.

While the tech is expected to help India’s understaffed and technologically backward police force, many privacy activists worry that, in the absence of a privacy law, chances of misuse and inaccuracy will be high. Some academics are also concerned about biased data sets that can harm the marginalised and poorer sections of society. “Blanket surveillance technologies like artificial intelligence can be harmful. My research shows that the police are biased towards the poor and therefore that would come out in the results as well. It makes bad data into hardened facts,” said Shivangi Narayan, a doctoral candidate at the JNU who has done extensive research on AI and policing.


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