India is rapidly digitising. There are good things and bad, speed-bumps on the way and caveats to be mindful of. The weekly column Terminal focuses on all that is connected and is not – on digital issues, policy, ideas and themes dominating the conversation in India and the world.
A decade ago, if someone told you that your Aadhaar card will be linked to travelling withing the country, you would not have believed it. But that is now a reality unfolding with Digi Yatra, a biometric boarding system that is the latest chapter in our digitisation story. It is soon going to force us to give our Aadhaar and biometric data for travel.
However, airports are not the only place where we are witnessing this phenomenon. The Indian railways has been piloting the use of biometric data for passenger seating for passengers in the general category. The railways wants to extend this usage to track known offenders. On the other hand, with FASTag, the government can already track our movements on national highways. Therefore, such a system is not an entirely new phenomenon.
Described as the ‘future of air travel’, Digi Yatra is touted as a measure to enhance airport security, enable seamless travel, cut down long-winding queues, and reduce operational hurdles at airports. It has already drawn praise from popular figures, including Union civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scinda. In the coming days, one can expect the civil aviation ministry to incentivise those who fall in line with this system, and those who don’t may have to wait longer in queues for security checks at airports.
There is a cost associated with such seamless travel options, especially with the government getting access to increasing information about people’s travel patterns. With Digi Yatra, one could make an argument that all facial biometric data will be deleted after 24 hours and one should not worry about privacy violations. This is a limited point. The larger issue of data shared, along with your Aadhaar number included, is also an important concern. During the Aadhaar judgment, it was demonstrated to the Supreme Court that metadata could be used to surveil people. The court recognised this and ordered the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to delete all metadata every six months.
On the question of facial recognition, the government says it can be developed and used for multiple reasons, including for welfare and surveillance. The real concern to anyone who is being subjected to facial recognition of any kind should be the proliferation of this technology. The threat to individual privacy is limited when compared to how this technology could affect an entire society. The power of facial recognition is immense and could be easily misused by surveillance agencies as we see it happening already in cities where police are forcing people to collect their photographs.
At present, Digi Yatra uses a 1:1 facial authentication process – where your facial biometric data is only compared to your photos. But the civil aviation ministry’s long-term plan is to extend this to 1:N facial recognition – where your data will be compared with the biometric data of other people. As more and more people register and submit their biometric data, the system will be updated and improved upon technologically. There are also plans to monetise this information by sharing it for advertising and revenue generation, with exclusive offers to frequent travellers.
The Internet Freedom Foundation has highlighted the challenges that come with Digi Yatra in terms of privacy and the lack of laws to govern these systems. But the real threat with all of these futuristic technology systems is how the government could misuse them to put people on no-fly lists and stop political activists, journalists and dissenters from travelling. While no-fly lists are good to penalise unruly travellers, the lack of due process and accountability in the entire mechanism makes it prone to abuse. The surveillance of travel across the country does not evenly affect everyone, but it affects people disproportionately based on their socio-economic-political factors.
As the government prepares every airport and every travel mode to be digitised, surveilled and controlled, more people will see these security measures as reasonable practices. Irrespective of these systems being tested against various privacy judgments and practices, people will choose notions of security and safety over privacy.
Challenging the government on these intrusive and rights-violating practices is going to be an uphill task, with a majority of the population not affected by these technological architectures. Technologists, lawyers and everyone from the government will call it a privacy-by-design architecture, a proportionate response, following the Aadhaar judgments. The government could also bring to the fore several other reasons to justify these systems, but these systems will continue to be invasive of people’s freedoms.
Srinivas Kodali is a researcher on digitisation and hacktivist.