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Pension department Embraces Facial Recognition for Pensioner Verification: A Step Forward?

From airports to pensions: Facial Recognition Tech expands in India, but at what cost?

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What’s the news: “Department of Pension & Pensioners Welfare (DoP&PW) is possibly one of the first departments in the government sector to have started using the latest ‘Face Recognition Technology’ for establishing Aadhaar-based identification of elderly pensioners to generate ‘Digital Life Certificate’,” said Dr. Jitendra Singh, Union Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances, Pensions during a press conference on December 11, 2023. While not entirely accurate regarding the “first-time” use of such technology by the government, the news highlights how Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to seep deeper into the administrative system, stressing the need for an AI-regulating law.

What is a DLC? Digital Life Certificate (DLC) is a biometric-enabled digital service for pensioners that does away with the need for physical attendance at the life certificate disbursing agency. Instead, it uses the Aadhaar-enabled biometric authentication mechanism to generate a Digital Life Certificate.

Nearly 20 lakh DLCs generated using face authentication: Now, under the DLC Campaign 2.0, the Ministry is using face authentication technology to generate DLCs using mobile phones. Singh said that out of the total of over 1.17 crore DLCs generated in November, 2023, 19.52 lakh DLCs were generated using face authentication technique. Moreover, of the total figure, 38.99 lakh DLCs were generated by Central Government Pensioners, out of which 9.76 lakh pensioners used face authentication.

FRT bad at detecting ageing: Although ease of living to simplify administrative work is a welcome step, it is important to remember that facial recognition technology (FRT) comes with its own unique limitations like the inability to detect ageing with regard to this use case. A notable example of this is the March 2023 incident when a Delhi-based person failed to get a duplicate SIM card because their original photo submitted 15 years ago did not match their updates picture. The ASTR facial recognition system of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) wrongly identified the photos to be of two different people, complicating the whole process for the elderly person rather than simplifying it.

There’s also the concern of whether a pensioner can properly take their own photo using their camera. A blurry or low-resolution photo can lead to similar complications with face authentication since FRT has an accuracy rate of around 80 percent.

Previous departments to have employed FRT: As the above text may already have tipped you off, the pension department is not among the first to employ facial recognition. In fact, in March 2023, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) listed as many as six ways in which the government was collecting facial data of citizens. This includes not just systems like ASTR but also the DigiYatra initiative to ease airport experience, Meghraj Cloud meant to accelerate e-services in India and even government offices in Delhi.

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I'm interested in the shaping and strengthening of rights in the digital space. I cover cybersecurity, platform regulation, gig worker economy. In my free time, I'm either binge-watching an anime or off on a hike.

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