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India uses controversial Aadhaar facial biometrics to identify COVID vaccination recipients

Safer than eyeballs or fingerprints, apparently

India’s National Health Authority has commenced a pilot of facial recognition software as a means of identifying people as they queue in the nation's COVID-19 vaccine centres.

The reason for using facial biometrics is simple: fingerprints or eyeball scans require touching equipment and getting close to machinery, both risky activities during the pandemic. A touchless and more sanitary facial recognition system therefore makes sense.

The system uses facial scans captured under India's Aadhaar national ID scheme.

National Health Authority CEO R.S. Sharma told Indian online newspaper, ThePrint:

We have started a pilot in Jharkhand which is reporting more than 1,000 successful authentications via facial recognition on a daily basis at the vaccination sites.

The program will expand across the country once the pilot has between 50,000 and 60,000 facial authentications completed, according to Sharma, who praised Aadhaar because citizens whose faces were scanned in 2011 can now use facial recognition.

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Aadhaar is the world's largest biometric ID system. Users opt in by providing biometric and demographic data in exchange for a 12-digit unique identity number. While presented as an optional system, critics say that India residents face more and more pressure to use the system, which collects a wealth of data, some of it accessible by non-government entities, without many privacy assurances.

For example, India made Aadhaar mandatory for e-gov services in 2017. A few months later, India's Supreme Court ruled that the nation's constitution gives its citizens a right to privacy, complicating matters for Aadhaar, which saw over 135 million financial records leaked at what appeared to be an inside job.

The breach was downplayed by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the government authority that collects the data. ®

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