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DeitY wants all mobiles sold in India to have iris scanners; Why?


The Department of Electronics and IT (DeitY) is holding discussions with stakeholders that would enforce all mobile phones sold in India to provide iris scanners. DeitY verified this undertaking by retweeting MP Ajay Kumar’s tweet.

Note that this is not the first time DeitY is mulling the use of iris biometric scanners. In January this year, the organization started implementing a fingerprint scanner along with 2-3 iris-based scanners in government departments and state-owned entities in Delhi. The Aadhaar enabled biometric attendance system was installed in 54 government offices, and would track employee attendance. The cost of each iris based scanner was pegged at Rs 3,500.

However, this is a curious move by the DeitY. Most iris scanning deployments serve hundreds of people (like ones installed in offices), but iris scanners on each smartphone will be expensive for companies to comply with. Additionally, iris scanners can be fooled by high quality images of the iris, a risk usually mitigated by human presence during verification. This is not possible on smartphones. Its also not clear why this move is necessary since something like a pin verification would be equally difficult to get through.

The only convenience iris scanners will offer over pin is to remove the pain of actually entering a pin. The iris scanner may actually be less secure since a PIN can be changed, but a high quality picture of the user’s retina can be used to unlock any of the given user’s phone even in the future. An iris scanner on every phone will also make it a sort of a standard, which will encourage other platforms to adopt iris scans for user authentication. Eventually, malicious apps installed by users could also scan their irises and create a database that can be used to permanently hack users with compromised ‘irises’.

The second major issue is the rising cost for manufacturers when making smartphones. It will not be practical for every manufacturer to put a scanner on every device they make. Hence India will end up with either no devices from the manufacturer, or with devices that are specially made for India. This will also raise the device cost for end users, as the phone now has to be made exclusively with a bunch of pointless sensors. There is currently only a single device, that too in the concept stages, that has an iris scanner.

Image source: Flickr user John Terning

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