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Digi Yatra still ruffling feathers among air travelers, but keeps growing

Indian airports’ face biometrics system dogged by alleged nonconsensual sign-ups
Digi Yatra still ruffling feathers among air travelers, but keeps growing

A new survey says almost a third of passengers enrolled in the Digi Yatra biometric system were signed up without their knowing, underscoring recent allegations that staff and security personnel at Indian airports have captured travelers’ face biometrics to enroll them in Digi Yatra without their consent. With the system set to be deployed at more airports and for foreigners, activists are sounding the alarm.

Digi Yatra is designed to be voluntary for travelers who wish to opt-in to use facial recognition instead of a passport for increased efficiency. An article in India Today says that Union Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia last week made it clear that consent is a prerequisite for capturing passengers’ face biometrics during registration for Digi Yatra. 

While the biometric service is not mandatory, airports have given extra prominence and real estate to gates for Digi Yatra users. In addition to the nonconsensual sign-ups, results of the survey by community platform LocalCircles, reported by Business Today, found that 15 percent of Digi Yatra registrants signed up because they could not find the regular gate for non-registered users. 

According to Scindia, one solution to address the ongoing confusion around biometric data collection for Digi Yatra is the on-site deployment of human “Digi buddies” to assist and advise passengers on matters of consent. 

Buddy system not likely to appease activists opposing mass surveillance

In a post for the Internet Freedom Foundation, author Disha Verma calls the collection of biometrics without consent at airports “highly disturbing” and calls for the full-scale rejection of Digi Yatra. 

The IFF is urging officials “to completely withdraw Digi Yatra from Indian airports owing to its large gamut of concerns relating to privacy, surveillance, exclusion errors and lack of institutional accountability and transparency.” Among complaints that the policy watchdog levels against Digi Yatra are that it is backed by weak data policy, has a “shady data ecosystem,” is non-transparent, and is ineffective. For the IFF, however, the largest red flag is the system’s reliance on facial recognition technology, which it says is flawed. 

In addition to familiar issues with alleged bias against women and people of color, a concern for IFF is that “the facial data stored from FRT-based authentication systems is far more vulnerable than any other biometric identifier as it can facilitate creation of 360-degree profiles of citizens and can result in ‘dragnet surveillance’,” which it defines as “the collection and analysis of information on entire populations or communities, instead of merely those who are under suspicion for commission of a crime.” 

Passengers register biometric details on the DigiYatra app using a selfie and validation through Aadhaar. Data is stored in an encrypted format. But, says the IFF, “Digi Yatra’s threats and challenges far outweigh its benefits. It has already become a tool of coercion and deception for airport staff against unsuspecting passengers” and “its growing use will simply only add multiple legal, technical and privacy complications into the mix.” 

Digi Yatra to add more airports in 2024, targets international travelers

A key part of the IFF’s observation is Digi Yatra’s growing prominence. In an interview with ET Edge Insights, Suresh Khadakbhavi, the CEO of the private, non-profit Digi Yatra Foundation, tells a compelling success story about his rise to prominence in the Indian tech world. Starting in aviation as telecom manager for Bangalore International Airport, Khadakbhavi learned the various aspects of the business and used his knowledge to develop Digi Yatra for seamless air travel experiences. Launched in 2017, the service and its associated policy was officially endorsed by the Ministry of Civil Aviation in the following year as the new standard operating procedure for India’s airports.

Despite the lingering questions around consent, Khadakbhavi is bullish on Digi Yatra’s future. He says the stated goal is to have the system cover 90 percent of all air passengers in India by March 2025. 

Evidence supports his optimism. The Economic Times reports that airports in New Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai are set to introduce automated biometric immigration clearance for international travelers using face or fingerprint scans, potentially through Digi Yatra. Khadakbhavi says Digi Yatra is also currently working on the prototype for electronic passport-based enrolment, for which testing is in progress. The ePassport system would enroll fingerprint, face and iris biometrics on a foreigner’s first arrival in the country, which would subsequently allow automated biometric exit and entry for travelers with chipped passports. Rollout for domestic travelers would follow. 

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