“Right now, the beneficiaries at the vaccination centres need to touch fingers at the machine for the biometric authentication. They also need to touch the equipment for iris authentication,” RS Sharma, CEO of the National Health Authority, said in an interview in April revealing details about a ‘touchless’ vaccination pilot being conducted through facial recognition-based Aadhaar authentications in Jharkhand. Now, roughly seven months later, MediaNama has learnt (through an RTI response) that the pilot has carried out over 2.6 lakh such authentications.
“Once we do about 50,000 to 60,000 facial authentications under the pilot, we will roll it out across the country,” Sharma had added in the interview.
Shortly after, multiple civil society groups wrote to the NHA raising concerns that facial recognition technology is not accurate in identifying individuals and that linking such untested technology to vaccination could lead to “potentially life-threatening exclusion.”
The exact number of authentications
In its response, the National Health Authority revealed that 2,66,943 ‘successful’ facial authentications had taken place under the Jharkhand pilot as of October 12, 2021. It is not clear if this figure relates to the number of individuals vaccinated as well.
What was already known
An earlier RTI filed by the Internet Freedom Foundation with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had revealed the following details about the pilot:
- Data storage and use: Facial recognition is done by authenticating their biometrics against the Aadhaar database. However, the ministry does not store any of this data.
- Authorised personnel: The Ministry had said that the system needs two people to operate at a vaccination centre – the verifier and the vaccinator.
- Formal guidelines and standard operating procedure: The guidelines and SOP used for the pilot are included in the ‘Verifier & Vaccinator Module User Manual’ hosted on the CoWIN portal. (However, this has not been made public.
- Procurement of technology: There was no procurement of new technology before deployment.
Regulatory concerns raised in a letter to NHA
The letter to the NHA sent by 10 organisations and 158 individuals, said that FRTs are prone to huge error margins and added that, in the past, there have been numerous incidents wherein FRTs deployed for a specific reason have been utilised for purposes beyond their original mandate. The letter particularly flagged:
- The 2018 incident where the Delhi Police were reportedly using its facial recognition software to identify anti-CAA protestors as opposed to its original purpose of reuniting missing children with their families.
- The National Crime Records Bureau’s 2020 Request for Proposals for the procurement of the National Automated Facial Recognition System, which did not specify the purpose of procuring the system.
- RTI details about govt’s ‘touchless’ vaccination pilot project
- India piloting Aadhaar-based facial recognition for COVID-19 vaccinations
- Tamil Nadu government’s plan to roll out its own Unique Health IDs raises eyebrows
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