NIC withdraws polling station surveillance tender: A small win for voter rights

Following IFF's letter to the ECI raising concerns over NIC's tender for deploying drones and facial recognition technologies at polling stations in the 2024 elections, ECI directed NIC to withdraw the tender, noting risks to voter privacy.

22 January, 2024
3 min read

tl;dr

After IFF wrote to the ECI raising concerns over NIC's tender for deploying drones and facial recognition technologies at polling stations in the 2024 elections, ECI directed NIC to withdraw the tender noting risks posed by surveillance tools to voter privacy, and NIC subsequently cancelled it. A small win for voter rights!

Background

Let's rewind a bit...

The tender

In December 2023, the National Informatics Centre (“NIC”) issued a tender titled 'Request for proposal for Empanelment of Agencies to Provide Surveillance & Monitoring Services, like for Elections, Examination etc.' (archived here) for the acquisition and deployment of surveillance equipment, including drones and facial recognition technologies, to monitor election processes during the 2024 union and state elections.

As reported by Medianama, the tender laid out plans for live-webcasting the voting and counting processes during elections, and setting up a “centralised command and control centre” to monitor activities in real time, in order to “prevent unfair practices and maintain law and order at polling stations during elections”. Through the tender, NIC intended to install field surveillance vehicles, drones, systems extracting data from FRT for voters, IP-based cameras, LED TVs for viewing the live data, and web-based audio and video streaming software on polling stations and counting halls. Along with FRT installed on camera for voter verification, there were plans for a web portal to collate data and MIS reports based on the data from FRT.

On a plain reading of the objectives of the tender, it seemed that the Election Commission of India (“ECI”) was in encouragement of this plan and had asked the NIC to live-cast from as many polling stations as possible. But at the moment, NIC had planned to select at least 5% to 10% of polling stations and counting halls for webcasting. The tender dis not comprise a list of the selected polling stations, or a criteria for their selection.

IFF writes to ECI and NIC

On Wednesday, January 17, we wrote to the Election Commission of India and NIC, urging them to roll back their plans for implementing surveillance technology in the upcoming elections. Our letter outlined various harms of election surveillance, including voter intimidation, risks of overbroad surveillance and profiling, exclusion errors with facial recognition, and privacy concerns.

Our letter stressed on how the deployment of surveillance equipment infringes on our right to privacy and can make voting feel like a not-so-private affair. We, as citizens, have a reasonable expectation of privacy while exercising our right to vote, which will be compromised by a monitored voter booth. We urged NIC and ECI to roll back the tender. Read our blogpost on the correspondence here.

Tender is withdrawn!

On Thursday, January 18, we posted a summary of the letter calling upon the NIC and ECI to withdraw the tender on social media platforms, including a thread on Twitter.

On Friday, January 19, the ECI Spokesperson indicated in a reply to our Twitter thread that the ECI has directed the NIC to cancel the tender.

"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." – Spokesperson ECI @SpokespersonECI on Twitter

Following which, the NIC Service Centre posted that it has formally cancelled the tender.

NICSI’s Tender for “Request for proposal for Empanelment of Agencies to Provide Surveillance & Monitoring Services, Like for Elections, Examination etc.” has been cancelled. @ECISVEEP @SpokespersonECI @NICMeity @internetfreedom – National Informatics Centre Services Inc. @MeitY_NICSI on Twitter

It doesn't end here...

While we commend the ECI for upholding democratic principles and the right to privacy through its directions to withdraw the tender, we also urge the implicated authorities to investigate how a tender with such far reaching implications on voter privacy was released in the first place. The tender notes ECI's interest in using surveillance tools and web-casting to monitor electoral processes, which is in direct contradiction to the Spokesperson's statement, and needs to be probed further.

Moreover, this is not the first time voter surveillance of this kind has been attempted. In May 2023, IFF similarly flagged concerns to the ECI on its plan to pilot FRT-based voter verification in the Karnataka state elections. Though it never materialised, any and all attempts at deploying voter surveillance tools in state or union elections need to be quashed at the outset. This may not be the first time such a tender has been floated, but we hope it is the last.

Important documents:

  1. IFF’s letter to the NIC and ECI on election surveillance dated 17.01.2024 (link)
  2. IFF, Why NIC’s proposed polling station surveillance during the 2024 elections is a terrible idea (link)

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