Prospective bidders for the controversial pan-India Facial Recognition System told the National Crime Records Bureau at a meeting on Thursday, 25 July, that the qualification criteria was imposing conditions that could hardly be met by capable Indian startups and gives an edge to larger global companies.
At a pre-bid conference organised at the NCRB headquarters in New Delhi, companies from across the country raised issues ranging from compliance with specific standards, past experience, certification requirements – all of which would effectively rule out otherwise eligible Indian companies.
At a time when the nationwide Facial Recognition System proposal has incurred heavy criticism regarding potential privacy violations, surveillance concerns, lack of legal oversight and accountability, its qualification and evaluation criteria has also received flak.
Several attendees told The Quint that the eleven point pre-qualification criteria – which includes successful implementation of three international projects – can mostly be fulfilled by big global companies.
“Essentially, only the usual international big players will remain eligible and competent startups who fit the requirements of the tender will lose out,” an executive of a prospective bidder told The Quint.
“This is surprising given the thrust the government says it is putting on India’s startup ecosystem,” he added.
A primary concern with international companies working on facial recognition systems in Europe and the United States is the presence of racial and gender bias in the algorithms. Experts feel that accurately identifying Indian faces will particularly be a challenge.
What is the Qualification Criteria?
On 4 July, the NCRB had ‘quietly’ released a 172-page Request for Proposal (RPF) calling for applicants to bid for the implementation of a nationwide Automated Facial Recognition System.
The absence of a data protection law in India – which defines how the state can collect, store, process and share citizens’ data – raised sharp concerns among digital rights and privacy rights advocates.
Some of the major requirements to qualify for the bidding process are as follows:
- Earnest Money Deposit (EMD) of Rs 40 lakh along with submission of bid
- Should have an annual turnover of at least Rs 100 crore in each of the last three financial years
- Should have a positive net worth in each of the last three financial years
- Must have successfully executed and completed in the last ten financial years at least three AFRS installations (with at least 10 lakh-entry database) for law enforcement agencies across the world
- The bidder must have at least 50 computer professionals working continuously full time for the past one year at the time of submission of bid
What Issues Did Companies Raise ?
In a meeting, conducted by NCRB deputy director A Mohan Krishna, companies raised over a dozen queries. Below are some of the major issues that were echoed by several representatives:
Good Algorithm Should Get Preference
“If anyone wants good results... only good algorithms will yield results. Many have the capability but please support them... otherwise such algorithms will die. They are unable to participate because of the experience criteria,” a company representative submitted to the deputy director.
Confusion Over Past Experience Criteria
While the qualification criteria specifies that bidders must submit proof “at least three AFRS installations with at least 10 lakhs database across the world,” some felt this to be too restrictive. Two questions were raised in this regard:
- What if a company does meet this criteria but strong Non-Disclosure Agreements prevent the submission of details on those projects ?
- What if a company has completed two projects and others are likely to happen after the bid-submission date?
Past experience carries the maximum weight age, of 30 percent marks, in the evaluations of bids.
Global Standards Compliance
A major bone of contention between the NCRB officials and potential bidders was regarding stiff compliance requirements with standards set by NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology) – an agency of the United States Department of Commerce.
Nearly all the technical image and video interoperability requirements are based on NIST standards.
The tender documents states that as a “desirable criteria” the bidder “should have participated in NIST’s Face Recognition Vendor Test evaluation program conducted by NIST after 2016. Provide NIST documentation showing the Participant scores.” Some participants told NCRB that this was an expensive and time-consuming process.
To the queries raised by potential bidders, NCRB deputy director A Mohan Krishna said: “We are looking for interoperability mainly. The NIST standards, like ISO standards, are required to ensure that data is interoperable with other national, international agencies,”