India plans face recognition technology to decongest airports

The proposal says passengers will be verified by being photographed at every stage of the check-in process.

Facial recognition
Last week, India's top court upheld the validity of a controversial biometric identity system [Mark Schiefelbein/Ap]

The Indian government plans to decongest its airports by introducing facial recognition technology next year – a proposal that may once again raise privacy concerns in the South Asian country.

India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation on Thursday said passengers on domestic flights will be able to opt to use their biometric authentication system and go paperless.

“Security will benefit from the ability of the technology to verify the passenger at every checkpoint in a non-intrusive way,” ministry secretary Rajiv Nayan Choubey said in a statement.

The proposal says passengers would be verified by being photographed at every stage of the check-in process – from entering the airport to proceeding through security and boarding the plane.

The government statement said the biometric technology will be introduced first at Bengaluru and Hyderabad airports by February next year, followed by Kolkata, Varanasi, Pune and Vijayawada by April.

Indian media reports said the biometric system at the proposed airports will use passengers’ 12-digit unique identification number, known in India as “Aadhaar”, and mobile phone numbers.

Aadhaar, (“foundation” in Hindi) is the world’s biggest identity project, with over a billion individuals enrolled so far. The national Aadhaar database holds all the personal details of registered citizens, including their biometric data from photos, fingerprints and iris scans, in a national database.

Authorities said the scheme will be rolled out early next year in order to decongest India’s airports, which have witnessed a six-fold rise in passenger numbers in the last decade.

The scheme is similar to US-based Delta Air Lines launching its first biometric terminal in Atlanta or British Airways installing the technology at airports in New York, Orlando and Miami.

Questions over privacy

But Devesh Agarwal, editor of the Bangalore Aviation website, told AFP news agency that the proposal raises questions over whether the scheme had adequate privacy safeguards.

“It’s a welcome move, but how will the data be stored and what happens to citizens’ data… if private entities start collecting biometric details?” he asked.

The civil aviation ministry’s proposal came a week after India’s Supreme Court upheld the validity of Aadhaar.

While the top court allowed Aadhaar’s use for the government’s social security schemes, it flagged privacy concerns and prevented authorities from making it mandatory for banking or telecom services.

In a scathing dissent, one of the five top court judges who ruled on the matter said the Aadhaar law was a “fraud on the constitution” and violated the right to privacy.

The scheme had been dogged by controversy since its inception in 2010, with multiple cases of Indians finding their social security payments, or access to food and fuel rations, blocked despite possessing an Aadhaar number. 

In January, a journalist faced criminal proceedings after she exposed how the Aadhaar database could be hacked and the identity cards printed for the equivalent of a few dollars.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies