The government is planning to introduce a biometrics-based system for international passengers to facilitate quicker immigration checks, in a bid to establish India's airports as prominent global transit hubs. As reported by The Economic Times, this policy, contingent on Cabinet approval, aims to simplify regulations, address security and immigration issues, thereby, eliminating the requirement for physical passport verification.
Discussions are also underway to integrate the DigiYatra facility, currently facilitating paperless journeys for domestic air travelers, into this biometric system. The said facility has, however, faced significant backlash in recent days. Numerous passengers took to social media last month to express their dissatisfaction with the unauthorised collection of their biometric data at DigiYatra checkpoints within airports.
DigiYatra, a biometric face scanning system which essentially works by making the passenger's face their boarding pass, has raised concerns and uncertainty among many travelers, as numerous individuals continue to be unaware of the reasons behind the facial scanning or the mandatory/voluntary nature of participation.
'Majority at Delhi Airport use DigiYatra unwittingly or under pressure'
Since its announcement in 2018, DigiYatra has been marred with concerns about privacy over its usage of biometric, in the form of facial recognition technology. Although the DigiYatra Foundation maintains that the facility is voluntary in nature, several recent travelers shared their experience on X, detailing instances where airport attendants coerced them to choose DigiYatra. Simultaneously, some highlighted the gradual reduction in the number of non-DigiYatra gates at airports.
The majority of air travelers departing from Delhi using the DigiYatra biometric boarding system did so without being aware or felt compelled to use it. A relatively small number intentionally registered for the system, understanding its benefits. Additionally, a significant portion mentioned they had not enrolled in the service and consistently used the regular queue.
These findings are based on a LocalCircles survey conducted on its online portal, gathering 21,000 responses from individuals who flew out of Delhi airport in the past six months. The survey, published last week, had over 60% male respondents, with the remaining respondents being female. LocalCircles is a community platform which conducts polls on issues of public, consumers and small business interest.
Around 15% of the respondents in the survey said that they signed up for the facility as there was no “regular queue”, while 29% signed up for it without knowing that the queue was meant for DigiYatra. Among the rest of the passengers, 41% did not use the app, while 15% used it knowing the benefits it offered.
Despite being introduced in Delhi, Bengaluru, and Varanasi over a year ago, 85% of the surveyed passengers departing from Delhi in the past six months expressed dissatisfaction, stating that the entities overseeing DigiYatra are not effectively educating citizens about the functionality.
With the the facility has now been expanded to 13 more airports, the total number of passengers who used the facility increased from 1.6 lakh by February 2023 to 17.5 lakh by June 2023 to over 90 lakh by December 2023.
Privacy concerns around DigiYatra
Privacy concerns have shrouded DigiYatra since few years now. It is a freely available application for Android and iOS devices. Users input personal details, including their name, email, mobile number, and identification specifics (Aadhaar, driving license, voter ID) to acquire a DigiYatra ID. Once this information is provided, a DigiYatra ID is generated and must be provided when purchasing tickets. Airlines transmit this ID and passenger details to the departure airport.
The Ministry of Civil Aviation's press release assures that all passenger data is encrypted, stored in the passenger's smartphone wallet, and shared only temporarily with the originating airport for Digi Yatra ID validation. The release states that the data is deleted from the system within 24 hours of the flight.
However, the Ministry of Civil Aviation is not the only stakeholder here. The DigiYatra project is being run by a private “non-profit body of participating airports”, called the DigiYatra Foundation, and hence, does not comes under the purview of the RTl Act 2005. According to experts, the participation of third parties, including for-profit private entities, in any stage of data processing, whether current or future, calls for thorough scrutiny.
Speaking to BOOM, security researcher Srinivas Kodali had also highlighted how this facial recognition technology could be leveraged for surveillance. According to him, government might abuse it to add people to no-fly lists and increase profiling. Furthermore, the absence of surveillance regulations in India raises the risk of abuse, particularly affecting certain groups based on their socio-economic and political circumstances.
The DigiYatra Foundation has reiterated the safeguards to citizens' data privacy within the system, via social media on several occasions. Additionally, in a bid to clear the air about the voluntary-mandatory confusion, a spokesperson from the Ministry also told BOOM that the functionality is "completely optional and passengers have the choice to enroll or not".
Yet, the recent instances of coercion at airports do little to dispel the confusion surrounding the nature of participation in DigiYatra or alleviate its privacy concerns.