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Meghalaya govt releases app to verify pensioners via facial recognition, raises privacy concerns

While the app will reportedly store data on local servers, its launch can be viewed as part of a disturbing trend in facial recognition technology being deployed in India. 

The finance department of the Meghalaya government released an app last month which would use Facial Recognition technology to verify whether its pensioners are alive to receive their next installments. In a blog post on Monday digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation revealed that it has assisted a law student in drafting a letter urging the Meghalaya government to reconsider its use of such an app.

In its letter, IFF objects to the app saying that it violates principles laid down in the landmark K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India 2017 judgement on the right to privacy, does not provide safeguards to citizens against the misuse of data, and so on.

What does this app do?

In a press release, the Meghalaya CMO claims that the app will replace the existing pensioner verification process involving periodic visits to Treasury Officer or Pension Disbursing Authority. It will be capable of:

  • Detecting whether a pensioner is alive from their “real time photographs”
  • Verifying a pensioner’s identity with the help of Face Verification Technology.
  • Storing all the photographs captured in a local server, not outside the state or the country.

The verification process will happen twice a year and the digital records will be available at the Treasury office for verification, according to the press release.

IFF letter urging review of the app

In its letter urging the Meghalaya government’s finance department to “reconsider the validity of the directions” issued, IFF made the following arguments-

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FRT data is sensitive and not adequately protected

IFF argues that FRT involves collecting, processing, and storing sensitive biometric data. However, the application does not have any anchoring legislation to govern the processing of personal data and thus, lacks lawfulness and the Government is not empowered to process data.

It also says that such anchoring legislation would have provided a grievance redressal mechanism as well as the time-period for which personal data may be retained, the purposes for which the data would be used, and an option to the residents of Meghalaya to opt-out. In absence of such statutory safeguards the “residents of Meghalaya, amongst other things, do not have any statutory recourse in case their biometric information is misused.”

In violation of principles laid down in Puttaswamy judgement

IFF points out that the app is in violation of principles laid down in the judgement for processing of sensitive data. These are – principles of lawfulness, fairness, and transparency; data minimisation and collection limitation; purpose limitation; storage and retention limitation; accuracy; integrity and confidentiality of data; and principles of accountability.

Inaccuracy of FRT systems

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Pointing to a report titled “Facial Recognition Technologies: A Primer” IFF says that the error rate while using such a system in Meghalaya could be ‘considerably high’. The report highlights a study which showed that when FRT was tested on individuals from several countries and age groups, the error rate was negligible. But when the technology was used on a homogenous population consisting of individuals belonging to the same age group and geographical area, the error rate was 20 times higher.

Worrisome trend of facial recognition in India

The government has been pushing the use of FRT across various agencies and use cases such as:

  • Lockdown violations: In April 2020, the Hyderabad Police deployed artificial intelligence tools via 2,000 CCTVs to identify mask violators.
  • Defence Ministry: In April 2021, two PSUs- Indian Ordnance Factories for Metal and Steel Factory and Garden Reach Ship Builders and Engineers Limited (GRSE), under the Defence Ministry- had floated tenders for the installation of a facial recognition biometric attendance system citing COVID-19 guidelines. The Indian Army office in Assam had also released a tender for a facial recognition attendance system with a temperature-checking and touch-less sanitizer kiosk.
  • Policing: In April 2021, as part of the Smart Cities Mission, the Bihar government issued a tender to deploy a facial recognition system (FRS) connected with the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS) and other databases available with the police in Bhagalpur and Muzaffarpur. In January, the Lucknow police had announced that it will be installing an FRS to alert the nearest police station if it detects a woman with a “distressed expression”.
  • Railways: Four years ago, the Indian government decided that all the railway stations in India will be equipped with FRT-equipped CCTV cameras. Out of 938 railway stations, work has been completed in 310 railway stations only, the Railway Minister said in Parliament on August 5.
  • Airports: On August 10, Minister of State for Civil Aviation General Vijay Kumar Singh said that systems equipped with facial recognition technology are currently being implemented at six airports in India – Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Pune, Varanasi, and Vijayawada.
  • Entrance exams: On August 11, MediaNama reported that the National Testing Agency has released a tender for the installation of CCTV cameras in 4,000 examination centres coupled with compulsory biometric verification such as iris and fingerprint scans as well as facial scans. These devices will reportedly be used to verify the identities of those appearing for exams like JEE, NEET, etc.

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Written By

I cover health technology for MediaNama, among other things. Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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