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India wants to use facial recognition in its coronavirus vaccine drive

Opponents fear that the move is designed to further entrench the country’s controversial biometric ID system

India is planning to add a facial recognition system based on Aadhaar, the country’s centralized biometric identity program, to the national Covid-19 vaccination drive. The proposal has prompted criticism from tech experts and digital rights advocates.

In an interview last week, chair of the National Health Authority chair R.S. Sharma said that the government is testing the system in the state of Jharkhand. He added that facial recognition, as opposed to the fingerprint and iris scans currently being used, would make the entrance to vaccination centers “contactless” and reduce the spread of infection.

Aadhaar now contains the biometric data of over 1.2 billion people. Sharma added that, should the vaccine identification project be rolled out, the use of facial recognition would not be mandatory and that individuals seeking immunization could confirm their identity by other means. Still, the proposal has prompted 10 rights and digital freedom advocating organizations to sign a statement highlighting their a number of concerns. 

“What we are concerned with is that, firstly, it would lead to exclusions. The second issue is that the right to privacy of Indian citizens will be harmed if this initiative is put into place,” said Anushka Jain of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group and publisher of the document. 

Launched in 2009, Aadhaar centers on an unique identity number, connected to a person’s biometric data. It was meant to decrease bureaucratic hurdles to various state services and enrollment is not mandatory. Over the years, however, registration has become vital to access a wide range of welfare and medical services. Since its inception, Aadhaar has been criticised for privacy violations, security issues and even making life harder for individuals who cannot be enrolled in the program, including the elderly or children in poverty.

“People are not registering for Aadhaar because they’re already worried that it is a surveillance project by the government that should not be expanded,” said Jain. She then explained that the need for coronavirus vaccines will likely make large numbers of people feel that they have little choice but to hand over their data.

“As India careens into a “second wave” of COVID-19, it is crucial that the government’s focus stays on increasing the speed, range and efficacy of vaccine delivery, and not use it to test out privacy harming technologies,” the statement reads.

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