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Exclusive: Telangana to introduce facial recognition for ration supply in the future

As Telangana explores bringing facial recognition to fair price shops, many warn that the use of such tech can be exclusionary.

You are reading it here first: In the future, in Telangana, your facial data may be key to getting access to essential items such as rice, sugar, and wheat under the public distribution system (PDS). While the Indian government is still in the process of developing Aadhaar-based facial recognition, the Telangana government has identified a use case for the same and is planning to introduce it in fair price shops in the future.

Telangana’s Department of Consumer Affairs, Food and Civil supplies has issued a tender for the installation and maintenance of 17,500 ePoS devices (electronic point of sale devices), which are Aadhaar authentication devices, along with iris scanners. The department said that these devices should also be “compatible to incorporate photo matching and face recognition options”.

There has been a spurt in the Indian government’s and various state governments’ use of facial recognition. Its usage has been debated as privacy was declared a fundamental right in India, but the nation is yet to have a major data privacy law in place. The low accuracy rates of these algorithms, which in this case may prove to be exclusionary, are also a point of concern.

Database seeded with Aadhaar to be leveraged for facial recognition

The department said that the camera devices required for facial recognition should be 5 megapixels and should be certified by the Standardisation Testing and Quality Certification (STQC) and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). It plans to make use of facial recognition for PDS by leveraging the state’s food security card database which was recently digitised and seeded with Aadhaar.

Government of Telangana has already completed digitising the entire Food Security Card Database and seeding of Aadhaar number into it. This enables the beneficiaries of the FPSs/NRs to draw their commodities after duly authenticating their identity with UIDAI fingerprints, IRIS and Photo matching and face recognition — Tender

MediaNama reached out to K Viswanath, the Assistant Commissioner in the IT wing of the Department of Consumer Affairs, Food and Civil Supplies, who said that the implementation of the technology has not been finalised yet. He said further decisions in this regard will be dependent on the Indian government’s decision on using facial recognition for Aadhaar verification. “Since the tender is for (appointing a system integrator) for the next five years, we decided to keep the option open,” he said.

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If Aadhaar verification fails, there’s facial recognition

This tender is a follow-up to a December 2020 government order by the Telangana government wherein it was stated that facial recognition can act as one of the alternatives in case “Aadhaar authentication fails due to poor biometrics of beneficiaries”.

The government order signed by V Anil Kumar, ex-officio secretary to the government read—

  • In case of poor fingerprint quality, a scan of one’s iris or face should be adopted: “Thereby the department shall make provisions for IRIS scanners or face authentication along with fingerprint authentication for delivery of benefits in seamless manner,” the order read.
  • In case biometric authentication through iris scan or fingerprint is not successful, authentication will be done through Aadhaar OTP, it added.

This was also reiterated in July 2021, by Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar in Parliament. In response to a question, Chandrasekhar said, “Face authentication may be used as one of the authentication mechanisms apart from biometric and iris-based authentication procedures with the informed consent of the individual.” He had informed that UIDAI’s Aadhaar-based face authentication project was in the proof-of-concept phase.

This is akin to treating beneficiaries as lab rats: Hyderabad Activist

SQ Masood, a Hyderabad-based social activist criticised the Telangana government’s plan to introduce facial recognition for availing rations and claimed that this was reflective of the inefficacy of previous Aadhaar verification methods.

When the Aadhaar project was first done, it was said that ration card can be used for verification. When that did not work, the government introduced iris verification, and then Aadhaar-based OTP verfication. If they are planning to introduce facial recognition for the same, it means that previous methods have failed — SQ Masood, social activist

“Rather than treating the corruption in the PDS system, the government is treating beneficiaries as lab rats,” he said. He also pointed out the accuracy of these proposed facial recognition systems was not known and how databases such as Samagra Vedika were being used to remove alleged falsified ration cards without prior intimation to the citizens. “The poor and the underprivileged are always the victims of these technologies,” he added.

Government contest challenged participants on Aadhaar-based facial authentication

A few weeks back, the UIDAI announced a hackathon where one of the themes of the contest was to use facial data for authentication. “UIDAI is soliciting innovative solutions to prove identity without sharing the Aadhaar number or any demographics information. Also, it is looking for innovative applications around face authentication API,” the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said in a press release on October 18, announcing the ‘Aadhaar hackathon’.

Participants in the hackathon were expected to develop systems that can facilitate:

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  1. Smooth check-in at railway stations, airports, and hotels
  2. Opening a bank account using Aadhaar-based video KYC
  3. Use Aadhaar to improve trust in high-value transactions
  4. Achieving 100% authentication success in rural areas without network connectivity

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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