Digital Rights Bodies Warn Against Use of Facial Recognition Technology in Vaccination Drive

The Internet Freedom Foundation has noted, "FRT deployment would result in a drastic change in existing government policy for an inclusive rollout of the vaccination process."

New Delhi: Ten human rights and digital rights organisations and over 150 individuals have signed a statement by the Internet Freedom Foundation that has alerted against the use of facial recognition technology in the Centre’s process of vaccinating India’s population.

IFF warns that in a recent interview given to ThePrint, National Health Authority chief Dr. R.S. Sharma, who was earlier chief of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) – the Aadhaar number issuing body – said that India could move towards using facial recognition technology (FRT) along with the Aadhaar to authenticate people before giving them shots.

“Aadhaar-based facial recognition system could soon replace biometric fingerprint or iris scan machines at Covid-19 vaccination centres across the country in order to avoid infections,” Sharma reportedly said.

IFF notes that Sharma had later clarified that such a move will not be made mandatory even if it graduates from the pilot stage in Jharkhand.

Also read: We Need to Ban Facial Recognition Altogether, Not Just Regulate Its Use

However, the foundation says that there is still reason to worry once FRT – even if it is not mandatory – comes into play. In its detailed statement, IFF has listed why and how the use of the technology is a severe blow upon privacy.

In addition, it says that FRT cannot be assumed to be 100% accurate, thus affecting the proper dispensation of the shots. “Linking welfare schemes to Aadhaar and its biometric verification system has caused mass exclusions, and has even led to starvation deaths,” the statement notes.

IFF also says that while the health ministry had earlier said that the Aadhaar itself was not mandatory for the vaccine, it later released fresh guidelines saying that it was the “preferred” mode of verification. IFF cites what public interest technologist Anivar Aravind first pointed out on Twitter – that the vaccination registration platform CoWIN was offering no option to sign up for another form of identity verification if a person had initially given an Aadhaar number.

The statement by IIF is reproduced in full below: 

The undersigned human rights and digital rights organisations and individuals, including those from the public health community express their deep concern on the National Health Authority’s plans to use facial recognition for “contactless” COVID-19 vaccine delivery. Facial recognition technologies (FRT) pose a grave threat to human rights, including privacy, and are being rolled out in the absence of a valid legal basis. We recognise that the timely and efficient delivery of vaccines is vital. However, the use of facial recognition for authentication does little to ensure this, and will in addition put in place rights-infringing technologies that enable mass surveillance and the erosion of fundamental rights.

The unchecked rollout of FRTs increases the risk of unchecked government surveillance, and mission creep. Evidence has shown that FRTs are not accurate and linking this untested technology to the vaccination roll-out will only exclude persons from the vaccine delivery system.

R.S. Sharma, the current head of the National Health Authority, and former chief of UIDAI said in a recent statement that  the “Aadhaar-based facial recognition system could soon replace biometric fingerprint or iris scan machines at Covid-19 vaccination centres across the country in order to avoid infections.” This has given rise to considerable concern and anxiety for many who are yet to be vaccinated. FRT deployment would result in a drastic change in existing government policy for an inclusive rollout of the vaccination process. As per stated government policy, note that biometric authentication is not currently being used in the vaccination process. As the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare clarified in the Lok Sabha, Aadhaar is not mandatory to receive the vaccine, and the ICMR’s guidelines on the vaccination process are clear that multiple forms of ID will be accepted.

FRTs pose an alarming threat of exclusion, harms to privacy, with a high likelihood of function creep.

  • Exclusion and discriminatory outcomes: Linking welfare schemes to Aadhaar and its biometric verification system has caused mass exclusions, and has even led to starvation deaths. As Jan Swasthya Abhiyan and Rethink Aadhaar have warned before, conditioning access to healthcare on Aadhaar, or, as in this case, an untested facial recognition system, will increase the risk of exclusion. Introducing this technology will only impede the process of vaccine delivery. Facial recognition is not an accurate mode of identification – as IFF has noted, “no FRT has been found to have a 100% success rate. Implementation of an error-prone system without adequate legislation containing mandatory safeguards, would deprive citizens of essential services.” Even the UIDAI’s 2018 circular, that introduced facial recognition as a mode of authentication for Aadhaar, noted that it was to be used “in fusion mode,” as an additional mode of identification. In the absence of any national standards to regulate this technology, the possibility of adopting inaccurate or faulty systems increases. An error-prone FRT system, as the only mode of identification, would lead to false negatives, as the system will not be able to correctly identify individuals, and arbitrarily deprive them of access to essential government schemes, in this case, COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Harms to privacy: The use of this technology violates our fundamental and constitutional right to privacy, a right affirmed by the Supreme Court in Justice Puttaswamy v/s Union of India. Any infringements of this right must be necessary and proportionate, in accordance with procedure established under the law, and subject to strict oversight. The proposal to introduce facial recognition for vaccine delivery meets none of these standards.  Function creep: Available evidence indicates several instances where FRTs when initially deployed to a specific purpose are then extended to others. For eg. in December 2019, IFF sent a representation to the Delhi Police in response to reports that it was using an Advanced Facial Recognition Software to identify protestors, which was initially obtained to reunite missing children with their families. In July 2020, IFF sent a legal notice to the National Crime Records Bureau, against their development of the National Automated Facial Recognition System, reportedly the world’s largest FRT system.

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 pandemic offers the Centre and State governments an opportunity to expand peoples’ access to healthcare as a matter of right, ensure healthcare is accessible and affordable, and that accessibility is not limited by imposing conditionalities such as enrolment in digital identification projects, or being coerced to use privacy harming technologies.

Our demands are direct with the shared intent of ensuring the prompt and universal delivery of vaccines in a rights respecting manner to mitigate the tremendous harm resulting each day to thousands of Indians due to this pandemic. We call on the Government of India and public officials, specifically Shri R.S. Sharma to :

  • Issue a public statement clearly stating that compliance will be ensured with existing government policies for vaccination that focus on universal and inclusive delivery rather than making Aadhaar and FRT based authentication as a basis, or pre-condition for availing it.
  • Transparently disclosing all technical and financial details of the FRT based system, whether any pilot studies are being conducted or being considered for the rollout of FRT based system. We urge that such necessary disclosure must be facilitated with open sourcing the algorithm for the proposed FRT based system.
  • As part of any potential pilot programme, conduct an independent human rights and equity audit that includes a privacy impact assessment of the FRT based system.

We urge for consideration and reflection as India stands at a critical juncture in its fight against COVID-19. Here, we need to follow the path of constitutionalism through a respect for rights and advance social justice rather than restrict it by risky, experimental and harmful technology deployments of Aadhaar based FRT systems.