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India’s government says Digi Yatra biometric system not covered under information law

India’s government says Digi Yatra biometric system not covered under information law

Data collected by the biometric boarding system that uses facial recognition to verify passengers at India’s airports cannot be requested under the Right to Information Act (RTI), according to MediaNama.

While the Digi Yatra system is positioned as an initiative of the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MCA), when MediaNama filed its own request under RTI, the response stated that “the Digi Yatra project is being undertaken by Digi Yatra Foundation, a non-profit body of participating airports… they do not come under the purview of the RTl Act 2005.”

Launched in December 2022, at airports in Delhi, Bangalore, and Varanasi, Digi Yatra promises a contactless, paperless boarding experience. An MCA press release from February 2023 says that “its main objective is to enhance passenger experience by eliminating the need for verification of ticket and ID at multiple touch points and to achieve better throughput through existing infrastructure using a Digital Framework.”

Its biometric app includes a secure digital wallet feature, and the Digi Yatra Central Ecosystem (DYCE) is based on self-sovereign digital identity principles.

On security, the release specifies that “in the Digi Yatra process, there is no central storage of passenger’s Personally Identifiable Information (PII) data. All the passenger’s data is encrypted and stored in the wallet of the passenger’s smartphone and shared only for a limited time duration with the airport of travel origin where passenger’s Digi Yatra ID needs to be validated. The data is purged from the system within 24 hours of flight.”

However, in filing its RTI, MediaNama raises concerns about the collection of facial biometrics of passengers on a large scale, pointing to research from the Internet Freedom Foundation that identifies issues with facial recognition systems, including limited training and errors in the identification process, which can ultimately have a negative impact on passenger experience.

It also raises the question of accountability.

“The Indian government says that Digi Yatra is an initiative of the MCA,” MediaNama says. “It is then unclear as to why one cannot seek information about the project under RTI, especially when it has been circulated as a national policy since 2018.”

According to its website, the Digi Yatra Foundation is a not-for-profit company incorporated in February 2019, “with initial shareholding of Airport Authority of India (AAI), Cochin International Airport (CIAL), Bangalore International Airport (BIAL), Delhi International Airport Ltd. (DIAL), Hyderabad International Airport Ltd (HIAL) & Mumbai International Airport Ltd (MIAL).”

In an interview with The Statesman, India’s Union Minister for Civil Aviation, Jyotiraditya Scindia, called Digi Yatra “a transformative concept” and said four additional airports, in Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Vijayawada, will be outfitted with the facial biometric tool by March 2023. More will follow over time.

“Innovations like Digi Yatra will transform travel across every airport,” he said.

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