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Aadhaar-based facial recognition is the premise of this contest organised by the government

With plans to challenge participants on Aadhaar-based facial authentication, here’s why UIDAI’s Hackathon sets off alarm bells.

Credit: Intel blog

“UIDAI is soliciting innovative solutions to prove identity without sharing the Aadhaar number or any demographics information. Also, it is looking for innovative applications around face authentication API,” the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said in a press release on October 18, announcing the ‘Aadhaar hackathon’.

Using facial data for authentication is one of the themes of the hackathon which will run from October 28 to October 31. Participants will design real-world applications of such ‘authentication products,’ like check-ins at airports or for high-value transactions, UIDAI’s problem statement for the hackathon said.

The Indian government is increasingly looking to deploy facial recognition for authentication, including at exam centers and even for vaccine delivery. However, civil rights bodies have argued that such use of biometric data can be exclusionary, and violates the right to privacy.

What does UIDAI have planned for the Aadhaar hackathon?

Participants in the hackathon will develop authentication systems for four real-world applications of Aadhaar’s biometric database:

  1. Smooth check-in at railway stations, airports, and hotels
  2. Opening a bank account using Aadhaar-based video KYC
  3. Use Aadhaar to improve trust in high-value transactions
  4. Achieving 100% authentication success in rural areas without network connectivity

In all instances, participants were urged to assume that verifiers don’t have access to the UIDAI database. Instead, the statement suggested, residents should share biometric data with verifiers, so that the process can take place locally.

What’s the problem with using Aadhaar-based facial recognition?

There are two main problems with using facial recognition for applications like high-value transactions or check-ins at airports and hotels, Anushka Jain, Associate Counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation, told MediaNama:

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  • No Safeguards for Data Security: “Such check-ins at airports would use biometric data, which needs to be given the maximum amount of security. But India doesn’t have a Personal Data Protection Bill yet, so airports collecting citizens biometric data is incredibly problematic,” Jain said.
  • Exclusionary and Inaccurate: “Another problem that isn’t going away anytime soon,” Jain added, “is that of exclusion and inaccuracy. A lot of us got our Aadhaar pictures clicked 10 years ago. People grow beards or have different hairstyles. The startups that are designing these systems simply don’t have large enough datasets to prevent exclusion.”

Why the UN called for a moratorium on facial recognition in public spaces

Last month, the UN Human Rights Office called for a moratorium on the deployment of biometric surveillance in public spaces. Here are the chief concerns outlined by the UN report:

  • Bias and Error: The report acknowledged that biometric recognition is riddled with bias and inaccuracies. This could lead to erroneous identification of individuals, affecting certain groups disproportionately.
  • Profiling: Such tools could allow governments to profile people based on their race, gender, ethnicity, or national origin, which the report found concerning in terms of international human rights.
  • Right To Privacy: A person’s biometric information reveals unique characteristics that distinguish them from other people. Using this information for real-time identification is a threat to the right to privacy, the report argues.
  • Freedom of Movement and Expression: Remote biometric recognition dramatically improves the ability of states to track individuals, undermining their ability to exist in public spaces unobserved. This, the report points out, interferes with the freedom of expression, movement and peaceful assembly.
  • Emotional Recognition: The report also takes note of predictive biometrics that identify security threats by deducing mental states based on facial expressions. Such prediction lacks a scientific basis, and usage of such tech by public authorities threatens the right to privacy and a fair trial, according to the report.

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Figuring out subscriptions and growth at MediaNama. Email: nishant@medianama.com

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