India tests mobile voting, arranges Aadhaar hackathon – both spell controversy
India is testing biometric, blockchain-based mobile phone voting for the first time in the hope of increasing turnout and reducing costs. Privacy campaigners are warning of multiple risks to privacy and disenfranchisement. Meanwhile the government is also arranging a hackathon to improve several in-person and online services through the use of Aadhaar.
The southern state of Telangana is trialing a free Android smartphone app for voting in a mock election in Khammam town to gauge the feasibility of the technology, reports the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Voters register their devices and authenticate their Aadhaar digital identity with a facial authentication liveness test. The process is handled by a blockchain.
Four thousand voters registered for the tests and 1,500 had voted by noon on the day, 20 October. A few issues arose including a failed biometric verification.
India’s vast size and 900 million electorate means huge expenses for general elections, especially for communities in remote regions. Polling stations currently use electronic voting machines, with people waiting in line. This was criticized earlier in the year as a COVID risk and could put people off. The news system could allow people to vote from abroad.
Privacy campaigners have voiced concerns around potential issues with the secrecy of their votes. The lack of internet connectivity in rural areas is also a key concern. The Election Commission has also proposed linking the electoral roll with Aadhaar to check for fraud, a move vehemently opposed by campaigners.
India’s digital identity authority raises fresh suspicions with Aadhaar hackathon
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) is hosting the Aadhaar Hackathon 2021 for 71 hours from midnight on 28 October. The first event of its kind aims to encourage young innovators in engineering institutes to get ready for the real world, states the official notice. But campaigners smell a facial recognition rat.
Two topics are covered by the event: ‘Enrolment and Update’ and ‘Identity and Authentication.’ The latter seeks innovative solutions to prove identity without sharing a person’s Aadhaar number or demographic information. This category also seeks novel uses for the new face authentication API. Herein lies the problem for privacy campaigners. They believe the use of biometrics is already exclusionary and violates the rights to privacy.
The hackathon wants to target four real-world problems reports Medianama: check-in at airports, railway stations and hotels; opening a bank account via Aadhaar-based video KYC; achieving full authentication success in rural areas without network connectivity and using Aadhaar to improve trust in high-value transactions.
Speaking to Medianama, Anushka Jain, associate counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation, said, “Such check-ins at airports would use biometric data, which needs to be given the maximum amount of security. But India doesn’t have a Personal Data Protection Bill yet, so airports collecting citizens biometric data is incredibly problematic.”
The fact that it is startups participating in the hackathon could itself lead to further complications, according to Jain: “Another problem that isn’t going away anytime soon is that of exclusion and inaccuracy. A lot of us got our Aadhaar pictures clicked 10 years ago. People grow beards or have different hairstyles. The startups that are designing these systems simply don’t have large enough datasets to prevent exclusion.”
A recent report by Access Now questions the use of Aadhaar as a good example of a digital ID program and examines its flaws including the exclusion of 2.2 million voters in the same state of Telangana in 2018 as a result of a trial of linking Aadhaar to voter IDs.