CHENNAI, India – Indian police have reunited thousands of missing and trafficked children with their families using a new facial recognition app that campaigners said was a “game-changer” in tackling the problem.

Tens of thousands of children go missing every year in India. Many are trafficked to work in eateries, handicraft industries, brick kilns, factories. Others are forced into begging and brothels.

Police in the southern state of Telangana developed the facial recognition tool as part of Operation Smile, a periodic drive to tackle child labor and missing children.

They scanned through more than 3,000 records on the app and were able to reunite more than half the children with their families in January.

“The results are very encouraging,” said senior officer Swathi Lakra, who oversaw the campaign.

“Earlier, the big challenge was what to do with the children after we rescued them. Housing them in shelter homes for a long time was not the ideal solution. Tracing their families and sending them home was imperative.”

Reuniting rescued children with their families is a mammoth task in India, a country of 1.3 billion people. Child rights campaigners say a lack of training and poor coordination between different states have curbed police efforts to do so.

 

A GAME-CHANGER

The app uses a centralized database of photographs and identifies up to 80 points on a human face to find a match. This makes it easy to search for a face, even if only old photographs are available, police said in a statement.

It can match a million records per second and includes a name search tool that can zero in on the missing child’s parents or village. The app also uses phonetics, getting around the common problem of proper names being misspelled in records.

The app is regularly updated with facial recognition data from shelters that house children rescued from the streets or slavery.  

Facial recognition artificial intelligence has sparked a global debate. Critics argue that the technology can infringe people’s fundamental rights and breach data privacy rules.    

Last year, the Delhi police trialed the technology and were able to identify nearly 3,000 missing children in just days.

Supreme Court lawyer N S Nappinai, an expert in data privacy legislation, said it was essential to have effective measures to unite children with their parents, but urged caution over how their data was stored.

“It is essential to know how the data is going to be collected, how long it will be stored, how it will be used in the future, and most importantly, when it will be deleted,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.   

Varsha Bhargavi, an advisor to the Child Rights Protection Forum in Telangana, said police rescued thousands of children on their drives but had in the past, struggled to return them home.

“There are huge gaps in the rehabilitation of these children, with funds remaining unutilized and repatriation back to their homes slow. The app may be a game-changer,” he said.

—Reuters

By Anuradha Nagaraj

A child living on the street walks on a wall displaying publicity posters of Golden Globe award-winning film
A boy living on the street walks on a wall displaying publicity posters of Golden Globe award-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” in Mumbai