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Facial Recognition Based Check-Ins At Indian Airports Now; All You Need To Know About The ‘DigiYatra’ Initiative

Concerns have been raised about the potential privacy violations as data on facial maps can be misused for profiling of citizens and even mass surveillance. In the absence of a robust data protection law in the country, there is a lack of essential safeguards monitoring collection and storage of data.

Union Minister for Civil Aviation inaugurates DigiYatra at Delhi Airport.
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Civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia on Thursday launched DigiYatra that allows entry of air passengers based on a facial recognition system at the airport in the national capital. But how might that work? Which airports and airlines have made it mandatory and is it safe to use this technology? Here’s all you need to know about the DigiYatra initiative:

How will facial recognition based check-in at airports work?

With DigiYatra, it will be paperless entry for passengers at airports and the passenger data can be automatically processed based on a facial recognition system at various checkpoints, including at security check areas.

For availing the service, a passenger has to register their details on DigiYatra app using Aadhaar-based validation and a self image capture. The app is available for both android and iOS devices. 

In the next step, the boarding pass has to be scanned and the credentials are shared with the airport. At the airport e-gate, the passenger has to first scan the bar coded boarding pass and the facial recognition system installed at the e-gate will validate the passenger's identity and travel document. 

Once this process is done, the passenger can enter the airport through the e-gate. The passenger will have to follow the normal procedure to clear the security and board the aircraft.

Which airports have launched DigiYatra?

Scindia on Thursday confirmed the launch of the DigiYatra initiative at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, as well as in Bangaluru and Varanasi airports. 

It will also be launched at four more airports -- Hyderabad, Pune, Vijayawada and Kolkata -- by March 2023.

At present, it will only be used for passengers boarding domestic flights but will subsequently be expanded across all airports and for international travel as well. Currently, Air India, Vistara and IndiGo have joined DigiYatra, while Spicejet is in the process to implement it. 

What are the benefits of deploying DigiYatra?

Talking about the benefits of facial recognition technology (FRT) being used at airports, the minister said it is helping save time for passengers at various international airports, including at Dubai, Singapore, Atlanta, Narita (Japan). At Atlanta airport, the time taken is around "9 minutes per aircraft boarding", he added.

Scindia said DigiYatra provides a seamless process from the entry point until the embarkation point on planes, and no identification or boarding pass has to be shown by the passengers. It is argued that once deployed, the facial recognition technology will reduce the time spent by passengers at check in by one fourth, and in turn reduce congestion on airports. 

Further, DigiYatra will ensure enhanced security at the airport as the passenger data is validated with airlines departure control system and only designated passengers can enter the terminal.

What concerns have been raised over the use of FRT?

This is not the first time the Indian state is utilizing facial recognition technology for public service delivery. Since 2018, based on the directives from the Delhi High Court in Sadhan Haldar vs NCT of Delhi, the Delhi Police has used it for investigations for the purpose of tracing and identifying missing children. Subsequently, the technology attained a ‘function creep’ and was expanded investigation purposes, specifically during the 2020 northeast Delhi riots, the 2021 Red Fort violence, and the 2022 Jahangirpuri riots.

Against this backdrop, multiple issues were raised about the credibility and accuracy of the technology, which led the police to reveal that it treats matches of above 80% similarity generated by its facial recognition technology system as positive results. This highlights loopholes in the system’s success rates. 

With airports mandating biometric authentication as another layer of authentication, technical glitches are likely to exacerbate the accuracy of results further. 

Concerns have also been raised about the potential privacy violations as data on facial maps can be misused for profiling of citizens and even mass surveillance. In the absence of a robust data protection law in the country, there is a lack of essential safeguards monitoring collection and storage of data. 

Has the civil aviation ministry addressed these loopholes?

The ministry has said that the facial map data collected will be stored in an encrypted format in a decentralized manner, to curtail privacy violations. From blockchain technology to timely deletion, DigiYatra has promised to avoid data breaches and misuse. 

Responding to queries about the privacy of data shared for DigiYatra, Scindia told PTI that “First, we thought of a centralized system that would house all the data but then issues of privacy, data theft, rightfully came up. So, we moved to a decentralized system which would house the passenger information.. on the mobile phones of every single passenger.” 

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He added that “We have moved to a decentralized system and your data is going to be in an encrypted format and it is going to be residing only in your (passenger) mobile phone... 24 hours after your travel, that data is mandatorily going to be purged from the servers at that airport. The data you upload gets completely wiped out in 24 hours even though it is protected by blockchain technology.”

So essentially, the travelers’ personally identifiable information will be stored in a secure digital wallet on their own devices, and they will exercise control over its use.

(With inputs from PTI)

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