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Crores of pensioners to be verified using UIDAI-linked facial recognition app

Linking the pension process to facial recognition authentication has been done before but the risks remain.

The Department of Pension & Pensioners’ Welfare (DoPPW) has launched a facial recognition-based app to verify pensioners and detect their liveness, according to a press release. The app, available only on Google Play Store for now, uses the Unique Identification Authority of India’s (UIDAI) AadhaarFaceRD mobile application and facial database to issue life certificates,  DoPPW Joint Secretary S.N. Mathur told MediaNama.

In order to receive their pensions, pensioners have to annually create life certificates – a process which has been increasingly digitised through fingerprint or iris scanning. The app, developed by a team under the IT Ministry (along with the UIDAI) is also awaiting clearances for Apple’s App Store, MediaNama has learnt.

The use of facial recognition and Aadhaar in e-governance projects has been increasing despite experts voicing concerns on privacy as well as the legality and accuracy of such software. In fact, in August, the Internet Freedom Foundation had sent a legal notice to the Meghalaya government’s Department of Finance when it rolled out a similar app.

How does the pension disbursement take place?

At the Central level: Following successful verification through the app, a Digital Life Certificate is issued to the pensioner as well as sent to the bank which can then send the pension in case of central government employees.

At the state level: In the case of state government employees, the certificate is also sent to the respective state’s treasury department. According to the app’s instruction manual, after downloading it, the app operator (which can also be the pensioner) has to scan their face keeping in mind the lighting, face position, and whether or not they’re wearing glasses.

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Neither the treasury department nor banks come to know whether the authentication is done via facial recognition or through the existing method of fingerprint scanning, Mathur revealed.

Concerns with the Meghalaya government’s app

The Meghalaya government’s app verifies and detects pensioners’ ‘liveness’ and then stores the data on a local server. Given the similarity between the two applications, these objections remain relevant:

Violation of Puttaswamy judgement: The IFF argued that the app violates principles of the 2017 Right to Privacy Judgement (or Puttaswamy Judgement), related to the 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.

Sensitive data left vulnerable: The digital rights advocacy group also argued that since the app does not have legislative backing, it does not provide recourse to Meghalaya’s citizens in case their data is misused or breached, a sunset clause on data retention, as well as an opt-out mechanism.

Inaccuracy of FRT systems: IFF cited studies showing a higher rate of FRT inaccuracy in geographically, racially homogenous groups to raise concerns about the app’s accuracy.

After receiving a response from the government in November, IFF said that it is currently mulling further legal action on the matter. Pensioners’ bank accounts also have to be mandatorily linked with Aadhaar to receive the amount – a matter that has been challenged in court.

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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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