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India wants to identify fliers using face ID while Google CEO seeks temporary ban on face recognition AI

Bengaluru International Airport has become the first airport in the country where Digi Yatra is now active and it will now identify fliers using facial recognition.

twitter-logoAnkita Chakravarti | January 23, 2020 | Updated 17:12 IST
Digi Yatri


  • Ministry of Civil Aviation has installed India’s first digital system called Digi Yatra for air travellers at the Bengaluru International Airport
  • The idea behind installing Digi Yatri is to encourage paperless travel and make the entry at checkpoints hassle-free.
  • Google CEO Sundar Pichai raised concerns about facial recognition technology and possibilities of its misuse

As part of the Digital India campaign, the Ministry of Civil Aviation has installed India's first digital system called Digi Yatra for air travellers at the Bengaluru International Airport. The stated aim of the system is to makes things smoother for travellers by enabling faster movement at checkpoints. For example, using Digi Yatra, fliers will be able to get into the airport and clear various checkpoints using a sort of face ID.

The idea behind installing Digi Yatri is to encourage paperless travel and make the entry at checkpoints hassle-free. It is basically a facial recognition system that will allow the passengers to check-in without having to produce any identity cards at the entry-exit checkpoints and aircraft boarding. However, a passenger is required to submit his details online before reaching the airport.

To use Digi Yatri a passenger will have to create a Digi Yatri ID. This will need a user's name, email id, mobile number and scan of identity cards such as the Voter ID, Driving Licence or the Aadhar Card. After entering the details, a passenger will get a unique number which they can quote while booking tickets. The airlines will then pass on the passenger's information to the respective airports. Upon reaching the airport, the passenger can access a registration kiosk for validating the Digi Yatri ID. On successful verification, the passenger's profile will be added to the central system.

Once the enrollment the process is completed successfully, the Digi Yatra ID will validate the identity of the passenger by face recognition.

The functional Digi Yatri-enabled gates and access system has been installed at the Kempegowda International Airport. Former minister of civil aviation Jayant Sinha tweeted about the Digi Yatri in Bengaluru. He wrote, "Very exciting to see DigiYatra national digital traveller system beginning to take shape at the (Bengaluru airport). Your face will become your boarding pass and it will be rolled out across India soon. Privacy protection is built-in through GDPR compliance."

Privacy concerns

As it happens with any technology that involves facial recognition, there seem to be privacy concerns around Digi Yatri, something that experts highlighted. "Sir, Chinese (are) using this technology for a long time. This is another platform of surveillance... Using technology is good, it always looks progressive but the reality is this is a system of surveillance," wrote a Twitter user in reply to Sinha's tweet.

Addressing his concerns, Sinha replied, "The system is fully GDPR compliant. All your flight information is purged as soon as the trip is over and no travel records are maintained."

Sinha also expressed his happiness about India being the first country in the world to have a national digital traveller system. "All our airports and airlines are collaborating to make this system happen for the benefit of their passengers. Proud to have worked on this," he added.

The problem, however, and it could be a problem of nuance because that is something always missing on Twitter, is related to lack of details about the Digi Yatri. Mishi Choudhary, SFLC founder and technology lawyer, claimed that Digi Yatri would turn into a surveillance tool. She re-tweeted Sinha's post on Twitter and wrote, This is wrong. Surveilling people without consent. When the entire world is banning Facial Recognition, we are celebrating this dystopia. GDPR compliance is only for EU citizens (do you mean the framework is inspired), how will Indians enforce their rights?

The Internet Freedom Foundation also raised its concerns and urged the government to release all details and documentation of privacy compliances of Digi Yatri. "We would urge @jayantsinha and the @MoCA_GoI to release all SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) and documentation of privacy compliances of Digital Yatra. Such tweets add to concern and confusion given India lacks a Data Protection law," tweeted the IFF.

Sinha, however, maintained that the system is voluntary. "DigiYatra system is entirely voluntary and only with consent. Privacy protection is as per GDPR and Hon'ble Supreme Court protocols. The regular paper-based access system will also remain. Please provide your concerns to they will get back to you with all details," Sinha replied, addressing the tweet made by Mishi.

Google CEO rings alarm on face recognition AI

Sinha's tweet, coincidentally, came on the day when Google CEO Sundar Pichai raised concerns about facial recognition technology and possibilities of its misuse. Pichai made his comments in Brussels where the European Union is considering a 5-year-ban ban on the use of facial recognition technology.

"I think it is important that governments and regulations tackle (facial recognition) sooner rather than later and give a framework for it," Pichai reportedly said. "It can be immediate but maybe there's a waiting period before we really think about how it's being used... It's up to governments to chart the course."

Update: Google is saying that Pichai was misquoted by media about his comments in Brussels. The company has issued a fresh statement on this matter.

A Google spokesperson said: "As Sundar said on Monday, we are supportive of AI regulation. Facial recognition is a very sensitive technology, and that's why we have taken a cautious approach and don't offer it in a general-purpose API while we work through the policy and technical issues at stake. So while we don't support a ban on this technology, we do encourage strong guardrails - particularly for public facial recognition, through regulations and other means. We recently published a framework for facial recognition to highlight key factors for consideration.

While the world is increasingly using facial recognition technology -- your phone, whether Android of an iPhone, likely has it and you use it to lock and unlock the phone -- there are concerns over its potential misuse. China is increasingly using facial recognition to identify and track people in real-time even if they are not under any surveillance or have not committed any crime. In other parts of the world too, government bodies and police are using facial recognition to track people. Misuse of the technology is such a grave concern that recently California banned the use of facial recognition by police for three years.

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