Tender for voters’ surveillance cancelled after EC intervenes | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Tender for voters’ surveillance cancelled after EC intervenes

By, New Delhi
Jan 20, 2024 07:46 AM IST

The National Informatics Centre Services Incorporated has cancelled its tender seeking surveillance equipment for monitoring voters during elections, including facial recognition tools and drones. The Election Commission of India ordered the cancellation after concerns were raised about citizens' privacy and the potential misuse of voter data. The use of surveillance technology on voters has been a contentious issue in the country.

The National Informatics Centre Services Incorporated on Friday cancelled its tender seeking proposals from companies to provide surveillance equipment – including facial recognition tools for voters and drones – to monitor voters during the upcoming general and state elections.

The tender was cancelled after communication to that effect was sent by the Election Commission of India (REUTERS)
The tender was cancelled after communication to that effect was sent by the Election Commission of India (REUTERS)

The tender was cancelled after communication to that effect was sent by the Election Commission of India. NICSI is a Section 25 company under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology that is responsible for procuring information and communications technology (ICT) goods and services for the government.

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The National Informatics Centre (NIC) had released this request for proposals in December 2023, digital publisher MediaNama had reported.

The EC sent a notice after digital rights body, Internet Freedom Foundation, sent a letter to the EC on Wednesday and tweeted about it. “When NICSI 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,” the EC spokesperson tweeted.

An EC spokesperson declined to comment on when the poll body learnt about this proposal and why it took the EC a month to get this RFP cancelled.

In its letter to the EC, IFF said “We believe that the use of FRT and drones for surveillance during election processes gravely injures the right of privacy of voters, and hampers the conduct of fair democratic elections.”

“The extensive deployment of video surveillance equipment will hurt individual fundamental rights, notably the right to privacy and dignity. Citizens have a legitimate expectation that their voting activities remain confidential and free from unwarranted scrutiny,” IFF’s letter read.

IFF reiterated the apex court’s Puttaswamy judgement that reiterated right to privacy as a fundamental right and said that facial recognition is a flawed technology.

In its letter, IFF said that the proposed data collection through FRT, live webcast of polling stations, and other data “will instantly become vulnerable to breaches and potential misuse”. “The risk of unauthorised access, manipulation, or malicious intent poses a serious threat to the confidentiality of individual voting behaviours, and unchecked collection of voter data and analysis of voter behaviour can be used to influence voter behaviour undemocratically.“

IFF had recommended against using the listed tools and urged the EC to conduct “a thorough privacy-impact assessment to gauge their impact on fundamental rights of voters”.

“ECI’s decision to withdraw the tender is a positive step. We believe that there also needs to be an investigation to determine 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 nor NIC should undertake any steps that results in unwarranted and biometric surveillance of voters,” Prateek Waghre, IFF’s executive director, said.

This wasn’t the first time the government had sought to use surveillance technologies on voters. In 2022, the Election Commission of India (ECI) had indicated plans to commission an “analytics-based system that monitors and analyses the conduct of voters at polling booths” and the Telecommunications Consultants India Limited (TCIL) had said that it could win this contract for the state assembly polls and the 2024 general elections, MediaNama had reported.

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