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Digi Yatra biometrics to apply to foreign travel, hotels with e-passport launch

Facial recognition program continues to expand in the face of security doubts
Digi Yatra biometrics to apply to foreign travel, hotels with e-passport launch

India’s Digi Yatra biometric airport ID system is promising to be available to international travelers by the end of 2025, according to a report in the Financial Express. The non-profit Digi Yatra Foundation (DYF), which is responsible for the facial recognition project, is waiting on the rollout of electronic passports in India to fast-track access for foreign travelers, as well as some expanded use cases.

Once the soon-to-be-launched chip-enabled biometric passports are available, DYF will allow them to be integrated into the app as e-passport verifiable credentials. In future, automated immigration clearances upon arrival and departure will eliminate the need for physical passport verification. For example, once credentials are checked in Delhi for a trip to London, they will be forwarded to the border authority in London so that immigration authorities there will have already received your credentials when you land.

The biometric credentials will also now apply not just to travel, but also hotel check-ins and “hassle-free access to public places,” via biometric access control systems that will validate travelers using face authentication.

DYF also plans to align with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) on its One ID initiative for global interoperability, which aims to further streamline passenger journeys through sharing of information and the implementation of contactless biometric identification systems

At the moment, however, the Digi Yatra transformation has added additional hurdles for travelers. The launch of the new app was preceded by a week-long outage of the airport facial recognition system for Indian travelers. The pause was ostensibly for back-end updates prior to an expansion adding an additional 13 airports to the system, as well as the foreign traveler and hotel activations. But given Digi Yatra’s reputation for loose biometric data collection and handling practices, it is no surprise that some suspected a data breach.

Like mobile driver’s licenses, digital travel documents are gaining traction around the world as an alternative to traditional physical passports. With Digi Yatra’s extension to foreign travelers, India hopes to position itself as a global travel hub that offers the smoothest passenger journeys. DYF CEO Suresh Khadakbhavi says that “India wants to have global hubs and Digi Yatra’s international feature aims to facilitate the same. If you look at West Asia, they have two or three hubs. The reason they are global hubs is because passengers can easily go through the whole transfer process, without any hassle.”

Digi Yatra’s expansion also spills over into digital customer service, with plans to launch a chatbot for text, voice and video support, query response and bot-guided enrollment. An entry program for stadiums and other large public venues is also in the works. Further down the road, the group is eyeing fully homomorphic encryption, a one-way encryption technology that can access the value of data on untrusted domains without needing to decrypt it.

Questions linger over suspected data breaches, technical bugs

The messaging from Digi Yatra is positive. But a peek behind the curtain reveals some scrambling to manage multiple crises. DataEvolve, the firm that made the old Digi Yatra facial recognition app, has been expunged from its ecosystem, with an accompanying notice from DYF promising that no one has access to any personal data of Digi Yatra users. The system has been plagued by face glitches and nagging data privacy issues, including allegations from travelers that the system had enrolled their face biometrics without their consent.

So, while DYF believes Digi Yatra’s biometric safety features and convenience will convert travelers to the system’s charms, it also has its own reputation to contend with if its airports are to become the world-class digital hubs it dreams of.

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