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Anti COVID-19 measures: University in Maharashtra to introduce facial recognition for attendance

The Punyalok Ahilyadevi Holkar Solapur University in Solapur, Maharashtra better known as PAH Solapur University is looking to introduce facial recognition-based attendance system for its 300 employees, according to tender documents reviewed by MediaNama.This follows the trend of several government institutions adopting facial recognition system for attendance to avoid contact-based mechanisms due to COVID-19.

A tender issued by the university on April 19, 2021 invited bids for “procuring two face reading machines required to record attendance of staff”. Devendranath Mishra, the pro-vice chancellor of the university confirmedthe development to MediaNama. “Earlier we had biometric, fingerprint based attendance system. But due to Covid-19 we are going for this. As of now we are only going ahead for the 300 employees in the university,” he said.

According to the tender, the university has requested the following parameters for the face reading machines:

Apart from this, the university requires a foolproof system based on liveness-detection algorithms to avoid impersonation/fraud, recognise beards and hairstyles, recognise partial face occlusion and detect masks. It has also specified that the system should be battery powered and be able to detect faces from 1 metre. The university also underlined that the required devices should be registered with Bureau of Indian Standards under the Compulsory Registration Scheme (CRS) of Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY).

This development comes at a time when several government institutions are taking the facial recognition path for recording attendance of stakeholders. As MediaNama reported before, Ministry of Defence has invited tenders through its various departments to install the technology at its various public sector units for the same.

Adoption of facial recognition by education administrators

Long before COVID-19 brought a spurt in the adoption of such technology, several other educational establishments tested out facial recognition tools for other purposes such as checking malpractices, and other issues.

  • Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences (RUGHS), Bengaluru: In March last year, Deccan Herald reported that RGUHS will use facial recognition of students from 2020-2021 academic year to check malpractices during medical and dental examinations. Deccan Herald had quoted the university’s vice chancellor as saying, “This is mainly to avoid malpractices like impersonation during examinations.” He also said that the Face ID will be linked to Aadhar.
  • Two schools in Chennai: According to the Hindu, the Tamil Nadu e-Governance Agency introduced facial recognition based attendance system in schools in Chennai. An official had clarified to the paper that the cameras are not for surveillance but are just kept active for the duration when attendance is marked.
  • For admissions into degree courses in Telangana: According to another report in the Hindu, the Telangana State Council of Higher Education introduced real-time digital face recognition systems where students need to just upload their picture and the system would generate all details. For this to work, a student needed to download Telangana government’s app T App Folio, upload a selfie and details such as Aadhar number and registered mobile number.

Experts say efficacy of facial recognition technology is complicated

The recent spurt of adoption of facial recognition in the background of COVID-19 is not just due to an evidentiary push from various governments (both Central and States), but also because stakeholders have found it to be relevant. For instance, technical college associations in Telangana demanded that universities install facial recognition or retina-based attendance for job security.

A Santosh Kumar, president of Telangana Schools Technical Colleges Employees Association (TSTCEA), told The Times of India“, If the government feels that using biometric will increase the number of Covid-19 cases, they should think of implementing facial recognition or any other alternative. In the current academic year, about 70 per cent to 80 per cent of faculty lost their jobs as submitting biometric attendance is not mandatory this year.”

However, somewhere in this push for introducing the technology across various use-cases, the subject of privacy and the fact that privacy is a fundamental right in the country is often overlooked. The country still does not have a data protection or any kind of privacy law. So where does these technology in terms of legality or constitutionality?’

“It is indeed right that we do not have a dedicated legislation regarding privacy in the country as of now. The draft legislation that we have right now does not bar companies or institutions from collecting such biometric data, as is necessary for proper functioning, but maintains that it cannot share such data with someone else for the same reason,” said Siddharth Jain, Co-Founding Partner, PSL Advocates & Solicitors.

“Now due to Covid-19, touch-based attendance system is not possible anymore and we cannot go back to manual attendance system. Hence the next best thing is facial recognition. The company just has to make sure that they do not share such data with anyone else”Siddharth Jain, Co-Founding Partner, PSL Advocates & Solicitors

At present, Indian law does not prevent the use of facial recognition technology by employers for attendance purposes. “However, there has been considerable debate on the use of such technology considering the sensitive nature of the underlying data on which such technology has been developed,” said Supratim Chakraborty, Partner, Khaitan & Co

“Facial recognition data would likely fall under the category of sensitive personal data or information as identified under the Information Technology Act 2000 and the rules framed thereunder. Therefore, employers are required to ensure their compliances with existing laws, which in many cases, is already being flouted while recording attendance even through biometric means”—Supratim Chakraborty, Partner, Khaitan & Co 

To safeguard employee’s and their data, tender documents for such technology tools should define the data security criters. Insitutions need to provide clarity the usage of these technologies, said Shweta Mohandas, Policy Officer,  Centre of Internet and Society.

“In the absence of a Personal Data Proection Bill which has a section on employee data; measures such as ensuring the data secure, clarity on how the data is being processed, stored, shared (if at all)and for how long will it be retained must be put into place before rolling out facial recognition technology”—SShweta Mohandas, Policy Officer,  Centre of Internet and Society.

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