India Pilots Facial Recognition At Covid Centres

India Pilots Facial Recognition At Covid Centres

India is set to test out facial recognition algorithms at inoculation centres. The system is based on Aadhaar, the country’s centralized biometric identity program, and has been designed to assist with the national Covid-19 vaccination drive. The government argues that the tech would allow for more efficient vaccines processes. However, the initiative has received an overwhelmingly critical response, from both digital rights and tech experts.

How Would Facial Recognition Work In A Healthcare Setting?

Aadhaar currently contains the data points of over 1.2 billion people. With this much biometric data, it could allow for a national database to quickly and easily be compiled. Launched in 2009, the company assigns a unique user number, which is connected to the biometric data. As such, the facial recognition could allow for members of the public to confirm their identity, without the need for carrying ID.

A health worker readies a COVID-19 vaccine as another comforts an elderly woman at a health centre in Bahakajari village in an interior part of northeast India's Assam state [File: Anupam Nath/AP]
Image: Anupam Nath/AP via Aljazeera

The news comes amidst fears that those who are vulnerable may be missing out on essential vaccines. With a surge in infection rates across India, the government are looking to find a quick way to beat the transmission of the deadly virus. With over 217,000 COVID-19 cases over the last 24 hours, India is currently only behind the US, on the global tally.

Due to recent events, facial recognition has been preferred over other biometric options, such as iris scanners and fingerprint identification. This is due to the high number of cases across the country, and the risk of transmission increasing via these methods. Currently, the authorities are testing the technology out, throughout the eastern state of Jharkhand. If successful, they plan to roll it out nationwide, according to a senior official, last week.

Exclusion Fears and Rights Violations

Aadhaar claims that the system was designed to “decrease bureaucratic hurdles to various state services”. Even going so far as to say that enrollment is not mandatory. Unfortunately, the company has previously come under fire since its inception for privacy violation and security issues.

Thus, there are concerns regarding just how secure the information is from hackers and as well as general privacy concerns. And, with registration becoming a vital part of being able to access services, it has even led to making life harder for some members of the public.

The nature of the programme, however, means that those who are not already enrolled in the system may not be able to receive the jab. Specifically, those who are elderly and children in poverty are also likely to miss out on vaccination drives. In other words, the most vulnerable in society – who need the vaccine the most.

Humans Rights and Digital Rights in Facial Recognition

In a joint statement compiled by multiple human and digital rights organisations, the criticism states that “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.” Adding that the move will “put in place rights-infringing technologies that enable mass surveillance and the erosion of fundamental rights.

India pilots facial recognition to help the coronavirus vaccine drive
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Anushka Jain, head of the Internet Freedom Foundation says “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.”

In response, the chief of the National Health Authority RS Sharma has reminded the press that enrolment is not mandatory. They added, however, that Aadhaar would be the “preferred” mode of identity verification and for vaccination certificates. This last part has been – somewhat understandably – particularly hard to swallow for many members of the public.

If vaccine passports are a requirement later down the line, it could be possible that members of the public would also struggle to verify their inoculation. As such, there is further speculation that the drive will force members to sign up for the programme. If they want to enjoy life as it was before the pandemic, that is.



Editor-in-chief, lover of UX/UI and copywriter by trade. Wendy can usually be found ranting to herself over on Twitter, educating herself about health and wellness, parenting or gaming. Luckily, she doesn't do all of these things at the same time - though you'd be surprised how often they cross over.

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