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Covid-19 Vaccination to Go Contactless With Aadhaar-Based Face Recognition: What This Means

India’s Covid-19 vaccination efforts are seemingly set to add Aadhaar based facial recognition, in a bid to make the process go contactless. According to a report by The Print, citing an interview with National Health Authority head R.S. Sharma, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) – the governing body behind the Aadhaar personal identification document of India, has already run a pilot project to test its facial recognition algorithms based on a database of facial data obtained from the Aadhaar database. The ex-mission director of UIDAI further called the pilot “successful”, before stating that the process will be key to making the entire Indian Covid-19 vaccination drive “contactless”.

How face recognition would work

As per reports based on Sharma’s interview with The Print, the Covid-19 vaccination drive presently requires biometric authentication based on fingerprints or retinal scans. Given the close contact quarters that such authentication procedures represent, facial recognition will help alleviate concerns of accidental infections at vaccination centres. For the process to work, eligible citizens of India will be required to register for the Covid-19 vaccination setup via the Co-WIN portal on the Aarogya Setu app.

ALSO READ | If You Thought Facial Recognition is a Privacy Nightmare, it is Only Going to Get Worse in India

During registrations, users can link their mobile numbers and use Aadhaar numbers as the identification document of choice. Once at the vaccination booth, users who have chosen to authenticate their identity by using Aadhaar will have themselves automatically verified, by using the facial recognition at vaccination booths. Prasad further claimed the UIDAI facial recognition algorithms to be the “best”, before adding that the infrastructure is capable of taking into account facial changes that happen to individuals over almost a decade – and still authenticate successfully.

Benefits of the process

The clear benefit in using facial recognition in the Covid-19 vaccination drive would be to establish even fewer contact points between individuals in this whole circuit. Direct, personal contact has been the biggest reason for spreading of Covid-19 across the world, and the use of facial recognition by cameras placed at a distance do away the need for registering citizens to touch the same fingerprint authenticator, one after the other.

The central government will also issue Indian citizens a digital Covid-19 vaccination certificate, which will be in line with the international Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources standard. The latter is an international benchmark of sorts for homologating healthcare documents and make them easier for accessing anywhere in the world. Given that this digital certificate will be linked to an individual’s personal identification, general argument states that using of data that is already with the government in the UIDAI Aadhaar database cannot do any harm. Instead, it would only make the process simpler and more streamlined, and may even speed up the vaccination drive for individuals.

Concerns around surveillance and data security

In reaction to the NHA’s post announcing the facial recognition pilot project in Jharkhand’s Covid-19 vaccination centres, numerous individuals questioned the need to bring in facial surveillance, and if establishing such an additional level of infrastructure would really make any tangible difference to the efficacy and convenience of the entire process. More users called for adopting steps to “decentralise” the vaccination process, while others called for data security credentials to be established before vital surveillance data should be collected.

In a previous statement, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, the Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare had stated that individuals will not be required to furnish or link their Aadhaar details to get a shot of the vaccine administered. This statement from two months ago goes against NHA chief Sharma’s latest announcement to roll out Aadhaar based facial recognition, which he claims will be done across country as soon as the UIDAI crosses 50,000 or 60,000 facial recognitions in its pilot ventures.

The announcement harks back to the privacy and data collection controversies that were raised during the rollout mandate of Aarogya Setu in the initial phases of the 2020 Covid-19 pan-India lockdown. During then, in an interview with News18, Sidharth Deb, parliamentary and policy counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation of India (IFF), had labelled the Aarogya Setu as a service that offered “sub-optimal transparency”, before adding that the app “does not operate under a valid legal framework that would satisfy requirements of necessity and proportionality.”

Going forward, it remains to be seen how the central government manages to address such concerns around data security, public surveillance and the effectiveness of adding a layer of technological infrastructure in terms of cost and resources. Until then, the UIDAI will soon be looking to green-light the move ahead for establishing facial recognition as a valid way to authenticate Covid-19 vaccination efforts at an individual level – as soon as its pilot project reaches its goal.

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