2,605 passengers at Delhi Airport’s T3 terminal have registered for the Biometric Enabled Seamless Travel project, which allows passengers to scan their faces at a kiosk before checking-in to their flights, Minister of State in the Civil Aviation Ministry, Hardeep Singh Puri informed Lok Sabha on December 12. The Indian government had launched the DigiYatra scheme in 2018, which allows automatic processing of passengers based on a facial recognition system at check points like: entry to airport, security check and aircraft boarding.

While responding to questions raised by Indhiya Jananayaga Katchi MP T.R. Paarivendhar, Suri further informed the House that airports at Kolkata, Pune, Vijayawada, Varanasi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Cochin, Mumbai and Delhi are covered in the first phase of the DigiYatra rollout.

Facial  recognition systems for biometric authentication of passengers first went active at the Delhi airport’s terminal 3 for Vistara passengers in September,  on a trial basis, we had reported. The official launch of these systems at other terminals is contingent upon a successful completion of this trial. At the time, the airport had told us that it wasn’t mandatory for passengers to go check-in through the face scanning kiosks, and willing passengers would have to sign a consent form to have to go through these systems.

The airport had also said that the biometric details of passengers will be stored temporarily and will be deleted after their flight has departed, and that the airport will not store biometrics of passengers. However, the Delhi airport’s claims were only for the “trial period” and it isn’t clear if these provisions will still exist once these systems officially launch at all terminals of the airport.

Is this really a ‘seamless’ way to travel?

The DigiYatra initiative says that biometric authentication of passengers will “facilitate paperless travel” and “avoid identity check at multiple points”. The government has been portraying this as a more “seamless” way to travel. However, that isn’t entirely true:

  • When a passenger signs up for the initiative, s/he has to submit an ID proof. If this ID is an Aadhaar, then its verification can be done online. But, for any other proof of identification, a CISF personnel will manually verify the document at the airport. This isn’t seamless, and in fact, adds more time to entire checking-in process.
  • The problem of passengers entering airports on fake tickets (or possibly using fake identification) cannot be eliminated while this process is non-mandatory, as those passengers will continue to enter airports using existing methods.
  • Privacy concerns: It’s unclear for now where the data collected by the airports will be stored, how long it will be retained for, and how they will deal with data protection and privacy concerns around biometric authentication. Will these systems be integrated with larger criminal detection surveillance systems such as the CCTNS (Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems)?
  • Delhi airport’s claim that the airport will not store biometric data of passengers after the departure of their flights is upended by the fact that passengers can sign up for a “one-time” registration process for these facial recognition systems, so that when they travel anywhere in India, concerned airports with this tech installed can go through the system to validate passengers’ details.
    • Under the DigiYatra scheme, data purge settings can be changed based on security requirements on a “need basis”.
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