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As governments leverage biometrics in COVID-19 responses, public and rights advocates ambivalent

As governments leverage biometrics in COVID-19 responses, public and rights advocates ambivalent

Countries around the world are employing biometrics to help navigate the difficulties presented by the coronavirus pandemic and the social adjustments it has imposed. Cash delivery, border checks, and benefit status renewals supported by biometrics have been announced in different countries, though the rush to deploy the technology has also quashed a government contract. The use of advanced technologies to combat the pandemic and its economic side-effects is supported by many people, but concern about the impact of lockdown enforcements and new technological tools on human rights is also increasing, and initiatives to do something about it are coming on-line.

Cash delivery in India

People in India’s Punjab state and Chandigarh territory can withdraw cash from accounts with biometric authentication and a one-time password (OTP) while still at home, as postal workers will deliver the Aadhaar-enabled payment service (AEPS) to their doors, the Times of India reports.

The service offers minimum withdrawals of Rs 100 (roughly US$1.32) and maximum withdrawals of Rs 10,000 ($131.70).

Trinidad and Tobago implements biometrics for border checks

The government of Trinidad and Tobago has taken the slowdown as an opportunity to add facial recognition and fingerprint biometrics capabilities to hardware and software operated by the Immigration Department, according to Newsday, to improve cross-border information sharing and enhance security.

Minister of National Security Stuart Young announced the changes, as the government attempts to put its border control system back on track. Newsday reports that the government implemented 15 automated border control (ABC) kiosks to a pair of airports beginning in 2018, but with costs running into the millions, the kiosks did not appear to link to any international verification databases, therefore not fulfilling international travel requirements, and forcing even those who had used them to then undergo manual verification by immigration officials.

The article urges the country’s government to improve digital service delivery through its iGovTT initiative to both take advantage of and support the newly-created army of gig-economy and remote workers.

Biometric DACA renewals

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients can use their previously enrolled biometrics to renew their grant and employment authorization cards, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has announced, per Cronkite News.

USCIS normally uses biometrics for identity verification, secure document production and criminal and national security background checks. Now fingerprint and facial images on file will be used to process renewal applications for those whose benefits are due to expire.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, USCIS offices were shuttered in March until May at the earliest, throwing the status of DACA renewals into doubt.

“It’s important for DACA recipients to do their biometrics every two years because one of the stipulations to qualify as a DACA recipient is not having a significant misdemeanors or felony on file,” says Reyna Montoya, founder and CEO of grassroots DACA organization Aliento AZ.

Ukraine scraps improper facial recognition tender

An order by the Ukraine government for 400 CCTV cameras with facial recognition and temperature screening capabilities has been cancelled after it was discovered the formal bidding process was skipped in the hurry to procure technology to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Unian reports.

The deal had been struck for UAH 65 million ($2.39 million), or 7 percent of total coronavirus response expenditure in the country over the past two weeks, and the ProZorro e-procurement platform indicated that proper bidding procedures were not followed. If the equipment had been included on a list of essential products mandated by a Cabinet resolution, the irregular bidding process would have been allowed, according to the report.

Public comfort level with facial recognition and digital surveillance mixed

Half of people surveyed in the UK about enforcement methods for the COVID-19 lockdown approve of the use of facial recognition in public places to identify people who are supposed to be under quarantine, but 42 percent are not comfortable with such a use of the technology, according to Police Professional.

The survey results from Crest Advisory and YouGov show similar support for police enforcement action, tempered by some concern for how much should be done to enforce lockdowns. Three quarters of the public support police enforcement actions generally, though a third say that in some cases police have gone too far. Like facial recognition, half are supportive of the use of drones to detect people breaking lockdown rules, while 43 percent are not comfortable with the measure. The balance of public comfort tips to the negative when it comes to monitoring social media, with 43 percent expressing support for analysis of social media accounts, against 48 percent in opposition.

“It seems likely that any attempt to use facial recognition or look through social media accounts to enforce the lockdown would currently cause significant concern to many,” comments Crest Advisory Head of Policy Joe Caluori. “And, of course, the UK is only two weeks into its lockdown and it would be interesting to see how this support may shift if support for government policy changes, frustration grows at the economic and social impact or even if continued good weather encourages people to leave their houses unnecessarily.”

While South Korea has been widely lauded for its successful measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak, the use of credit card and cellphone data, CCTV and facial recognition in a robust democracy is new, and similar measures are being taken elsewhere, according to an editorial in Ozy.

It is not just China, Russia, and Singapore that have stepped up digital surveillance, the article points out. Israel is using cellphone data to enforce its lockdown, the U.S. government is reported to be using data from mobile app companies to monitor stay-at-home compliance, and the UK and Germany are developing apps to track the movements of infected individuals.

With so many measures and technologies coming online in countries around the world, Privacy International has taken on the challenge of tracking the tracking systems with a new project cataloging coverage of announcements by companies governments, and international agencies.

“It is essential to keep track of them,” the organization writes. “When the pandemic is over, such extraordinary measures must be put to an end and held to account.”

Privacy International emphasizes that containment efforts “must be temporary, necessary, and proportionate.” The organization has compiled a list of well over a hundred announcements so far.

The Thompson Reuters Foundation has a similar list, compiled by country, which notes the use of facial recognition in China, Russia, and Armenia.

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