The VICE Guide to Right Now

Indian Cafe Using Facial Recognition Without Customers’ Consent Sparks Calls for Better Privacy Laws

Now that the tea has been spilled, Chaayos claims the "data is encrypted", even as digital activists call it a breach of privacy.
Shamani Joshi
Mumbai, IN
Chaayos facial recognition technology controversy
Photo by Mohd Aram (left) and Proxyclick Visitor Management System  (right) via Unsplash

Popular Indian tea cafe chain Chaayos is currently facing a lot of flak after customers called out the store for handing them their masala chai only after a device snapped a photo of their faces with their newly-introduced facial recognition technology. While they stressed this was done without their permission, they also claim they were not informed about what the photos would be used for and had no way to opt-out of it either.


On their part, Chaayos has been trying to justify the face-recognition device as a “convenience” that will allow customers to avoid the hassle of One Time Password (OTP) every time they make a transaction at the cafe.

But now that the tea has been spilled, people, especially the digital rights activists, are pretty pissed off.

Joanne D'Cunha, associate counsel at Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that because data privacy in India lacks legally challengeable safeguards, instances like this could lead to “breaches of privacy, misidentification and even profiling of individuals". "Until India introduces a comprehensive data protection law that provides such guarantees, there needs to be a moratorium on any technology that would infringe upon an individual's right to privacy and other rights that stem from it,” she said.

In the meantime, Chaayos is covering their asses by saying that this data will only be used to reduce the time a customer takes to make a purchase and that the data collected was encrypted. They further added that the data would not be shared and could be opted out of. "We are extremely conscious about our customers' data security and privacy and are committed to protecting it," reads a statement put out by the company.

India is not new to face-recognition technology. If you’re an iPhone user, for instance, then you have willingly agreed to grant Apple access to your face just so your phone can conveniently unlock without requiring much effort from your end. But a breach of privacy of this nature is actually being considered in the country at the moment, especially as airports implement them in an effort to identify criminals or for the police officers to find missing children.


However, since we have no proper laws on facial recognition technology, digital activists are asking for regulation. The concern? Our very own Black Mirror-esque surveillance state.

While in the US, San Francisco and Oakland have banned the facial recognition technology, India is preparing a Personal Data Protection Bill that is scheduled to be introduced during a parliamentary session on December 13. The bill proposes stricter rules while storing personal data, and punishment for those who misuse it. But activists are challenging this process for being too “secretive and selective”.

While we still can’t be too sure about whether this technology ever be regulated, there's a bright side: At least common citizens such as us can recognise the devious ways our data is being mined, and call out the agents behind it on social media platforms.

Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.