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Facial authentication for vaccination not the same as facial recognition: Nandan Nilekani

Aadhaar-based facial authentication used for vaccination drive is not the same as facial recognition, Nandan Nilekani said during Microsoft India’s ExpertSpeak event on Tuesday. Nilekani is the former chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and currently non-executive chairman of Infosys Ltd.

“What is being used is face authentication, where your photo will be compared when you give your Aadhaar number. It is no different than a fingerprint or Iris or OTP authentication. Facial recognition is scanning a database to look for a person. No such thing is being contemplated,” Nilekani said.

The Indian government began rolling out an Aadhaar-based facial recognition system for COVID-19 vaccinations earlier this month after piloting the same earlier this month. The pilot was conducted in Jharkhand where over 1000 successful authentications were carried out on daily basis at the vaccination sites. This initiative was set up to make the entire vaccination process “touchless,” RS Sharma, chief executive officer of the National Health Authority and former UIDAI chief said then.

Following a public backlash due to privacy and exclusion concerns, Sharma clarified that this system is only a proof-of-concept and will not be mandatory. He also stated that this system “involves face authentication and not facial recognition,” a similar argument that Nilekani has now stated.

What is the difference between facial authentication and facial recognition?

In facial authentication, a person’s face is captured and compared with the same person’s photo in a database to check if they match. It is usually done with the knowledge and consent of the person and for some specific benefit known to the person. For example, the latest iPhones use Face ID to make the process of unlocking your phone secure and faster.

In facial recognition, a person’s face is captured and compared with a database of photos to find a potential match. The person is usually unaware of the process, does not give consent, and has no direct benefit from it. For example, take CCTVs installed in the streets by law enforcement agencies that scan the crowd to find matches against a database of criminals.

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What is the issue with Nilekani’s statement?

Nilekani’s claim that facial authentication used for vaccination drive is not the same as facial recognition is problematic because it ignores the problem of function creep. Without any proper data protection law and privacy safeguards in place, the photos captured for facial authentication with Aadhaar could be used for purposes other than intended.

The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) published a statement highlighting its concerns over exclusion and privacy issues surrounding this technology.

“The use of this technology violates our fundamental and constitutional right to privacy, a right affirmed by the Supreme Court in Justice Puttaswamy v/s Union of India. Any infringements of this right must be necessary and proportionate, in accordance with procedure established under the law, and subject to strict oversight. The proposal to introduce facial recognition for vaccine delivery meets none of these standards”—Internet Freedom Foundation

There have been instances in the past where facial recognition technologies developed for specific purposes have been extended to others. For example, Delhi police got permission to track missing children with facial recognition software but later used this technology to track people participating in anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests.

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