In a recent interview, the National Health Authority chief Dr. R.S. Sharma stated that facial recognition technology (FRT) would be used in conjunction with Aadhaar to authenticate the identity of people seeking vaccines. Working with Rethink Aadhaar and a team of volunteers, we have released a joint statement opposing this initiative, that is co-signed by more than 10 organisations and 158 individuals, many from the public health movement. In the statement, we highlight our concerns on the use of this inaccurate technology for access to vaccines and how it may lead to potentially life threatening exclusion. Sign on to the statement here!
Updated on April 19, 2021
As on April 19, 2021, the joint statement has been endorsed by 16 organisations and 505 individuals. We have sent this joint statement along with a brief covering letter to Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma and the National Health Authority. The endorsements have also been updated in the table below.
We will continue to update you with regard to the next steps we take on the issue as we consider further advocacy actions depending on the response received from the authorities, which may immediately commence with measures towards transparency by filing Right to Information requests.
In an interview to The Print, the CEO of the National Health Authority, Dr. R.S. Sharma, who is also the former Director General of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), said that,
“Aadhaar-based facial recognition system could soon replace biometric fingerprint or iris scan machines at Covid-19 vaccination centres across the country in order to avoid infections”.
While currently the Government is using biometric fingerprint or iris scan machines for the purpose of authentication of identity at vaccination centres, they could soon be replaced with FRT by the Government which believes that use of FRT will help in avoiding infections. According to the interview, the pilot for the program has already been initiated in Jharkhand.
Following severe backlash from privacy as well as public health organisations, Dr. R.S. Sharma, on April 10, 2021, clarified that Aadhaar based FRT usage for access to vaccines is just a “proof of concept” at this stage, and won’t be made mandatory even if it is rolled out across the country. However, even non-mandatory use of Aadhaar based FRT is extremely problematic and should be immediately halted. We discuss our concerns on use of FRT in the next section.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had earlier clarified in the Lok Sabha that Aadhaar was not mandatory to receive the vaccine, which was reflected in the ICMR’s guidelines on the vaccination process, which listed the multiple forms of ID that would be accepted. However, in fresh guidelines released in early April, Aadhaar was listed as the "preferred" mode of identity verification. However, a public interest technologist, Anivar Aravind has posted the following screenshot from the COWIN platform.
Joint Statement by more than 10 organisations and 158 Individuals
The undersigned human rights and digital rights organisations and individuals, including those from the public health community express their deep concern on the National Health Authority’s plans to use facial recognition for “contactless” COVID-19 vaccine delivery. Facial recognition technologies (FRT) pose a grave threat to human rights, including privacy, and are being rolled out in the absence of a valid legal basis. We recognise that the timely and efficient delivery of vaccines is vital. However, the use of facial recognition for authentication does little to ensure this, and will in addition put in place rights-infringing technologies that enable mass surveillance and the erosion of fundamental rights.
The unchecked rollout of FRTs increases the risk of unchecked government surveillance, and mission creep. Evidence has shown that FRTs are not accurate and linking this untested technology to the vaccination roll-out will only exclude persons from the vaccine delivery system.
R.S. Sharma, the current head of the National Health Authority, and former chief of UIDAI said in a recent statement that the “Aadhaar-based facial recognition system could soon replace biometric fingerprint or iris scan machines at Covid-19 vaccination centres across the country in order to avoid infections.” This has given rise to considerable concern and anxiety for many who are yet to be vaccinated. FRT deployment would result in a drastic change in existing government policy for an inclusive rollout of the vaccination process. As per stated government policy, note that biometric authentication is not currently being used in the vaccination process. As the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare clarified in the Lok Sabha, Aadhaar is not mandatory to receive the vaccine, and the ICMR’s guidelines on the vaccination process are clear that multiple forms of ID will be accepted.
FRTs pose an alarming threat of exclusion, harms to privacy, with a high likelihood of function creep.
- Exclusion and discriminatory outcomes: Linking welfare schemes to Aadhaar and its biometric verification system has caused mass exclusions, and has even led to starvation deaths. As Jan Swasthya Abhiyan and Rethink Aadhaar have warned before, conditioning access to healthcare on Aadhaar, or, as in this case, an untested facial recognition system, will increase the risk of exclusion. Introducing this technology will only impede the process of vaccine delivery. Facial recognition is not an accurate mode of identification - as IFF has noted, “no FRT has been found to have a 100% success rate. Implementation of an error-prone system without adequate legislation containing mandatory safeguards, would deprive citizens of essential services.” Even the UIDAI’s 2018 circular, that introduced facial recognition as a mode of authentication for Aadhaar, noted that it was to be used “in fusion mode,” as an additional mode of identification. In the absence of any national standards to regulate this technology, the possibility of adopting inaccurate or faulty systems increases. An error-prone FRT system, as the only mode of identification, would lead to false negatives, as the system will not be able to correctly identify individuals, and arbitrarily deprive them of access to essential government schemes, in this case, COVID-19 vaccines.
- Harms to privacy: The use of this technology violates our fundamental and constitutional right to privacy, a right affirmed by the Supreme Court in Justice Puttaswamy v/s Union of India. Any infringements of this right must be necessary and proportionate, in accordance with procedure established under the law, and subject to strict oversight. The proposal to introduce facial recognition for vaccine delivery meets none of these standards. Function creep: Available evidence indicates several instances where FRTs when initially deployed to a specific purpose are then extended to others. For eg. in December 2019, IFF sent a representation to the Delhi Police in response to reports that it was using an Advanced Facial Recognition Software to identify protestors, which was initially obtained to reunite missing children with their families. In July 2020, IFF sent a legal notice to the National Crime Records Bureau, against their development of the National Automated Facial Recognition System, reportedly the world’s largest FRT system.
As India careens into a “second wave” of COVID-19, it is crucial that the government’s focus stays on increasing the speed, range and efficacy of vaccine delivery, and not use it to test out privacy harming technologies. The pandemic offers the Centre and State governments an opportunity to expand peoples’ access to healthcare as a matter of right, ensure healthcare is accessible and affordable, and that accessibility is not limited by imposing conditionalities such as enrolment in digital identification projects, or being coerced to use privacy harming technologies.
Our demands are direct with the shared intent of ensuring the prompt and universal delivery of vaccines in a rights respecting manner to mitigate the tremendous harm resulting each day to thousands of Indians due to this pandemic. We call on the Government of India and public officials, specifically Shri R.S. Sharma to :
- Issue a public statement clearly stating that compliance will be ensured with existing government policies for vaccination that focus on universal and inclusive delivery rather than making Aadhaar and FRT based authentication as a basis, or pre-condition for availing it.
- Transparently disclosing all technical and financial details of the FRT based system, whether any pilot studies are being conducted or being considered for the rollout of FRT based system. We urge that such necessary disclosure must be facilitated with open sourcing the algorithm for the proposed FRT based system.
- As part of any potential pilot programme, conduct an independent human rights and equity audit that includes a privacy impact assessment of the FRT based system.
We urge for consideration and reflection as India stands at a critical juncture in its fight against COVID-19. Here, we need to follow the path of constitutionalism through a respect for rights and advance social justice rather than restrict it by risky, experimental and harmful technology deployments of Aadhaar based FRT systems.
We all need to remain vigilant on FRT System deployments
FRT is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) based technology system which learns to recognize faces on the basis of the data sets that are fed to it. Research has shown that FRT shows high levels of inaccuracy in correctly identifying faces due to the use of biased datasets. Existing bias creeps into these datasets through the people who design them and is reinforced. (Read our review of the Coded Bias documentary which beautifully highlights the work of the women leading the charge against FRT)
This inaccuracy, which is inbuilt into the system, leads to false negative results. A false negative result occurs when the FRT fails to correctly identify the person. This will result in exclusion of the people from access to the schemes for which the authentication of identity was being carried out. We have already seen this occur in the case of Aadhaar to the extent that exclusion led to starvation deaths. Combining these two inaccurate systems will only lead to compounding the existent exclusion.
India is currently at an extremely crucial juncture in its fight against this pandemic and the COVID-19 vaccine is essential to this fight. The foremost way of mitigating the harms of this deadly disease is to ensure that vaccination against COVID-19 is prioritised. The Government has a duty to ensure that any unnecessary hurdles to access to the vaccine are removed. However, with the introduction of this new policy initiative, the Government is increasing them without cause.
In addition to this, under our Project Panoptic, we have been warning against the function creep of this harmful technology since last year. Function creep occurs when a technology or system gradually widens its scope from its original purpose to encompass and to fulfill wider functions. This is the major concern among many privacy experts with regard to the use of FRT wherein they are worried that its use will exceed the indicated purpose of authentication of identity and will end up facilitating state-sponsored mass surveillance.
List of existing signatories (Organisations and Individuals)
|Centre for Financial Accountability (CFA)|
|Health, Ethics, and Law Institute of Forum for Medical Ethics Society|
|Indian Social Action Forum - INSAF|
|Indusviva HealthSciences pvt LTD|
|Internet Freedom Foundation|
|Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, Chhattisgarh|
|Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, India|
|Jan Swasthya Abhiyan-Mumbai|
|Jharkhand Nagrik Prayas|
|National Alliance for Maternal Health and Human Rights|
|Punjab Women Collective|
|Swathanthra Malayalam Computing|
|The Bachchao Project|
|Dr Mira Shiva|
|Adarsh M Madhu|
|Adhil Ameen P J|
|Adv. Rohan Babu Joseph|
|Afsal Y S|
|Ajinkya dayanand thorawat|
|Amith V Purushothaman|
|Anadish Kumar Pal|
|Ananthanarayanan K Subramanian|
|Arnav Andrew Jose|
|Arpitha S. Desai|
|Arun K. P.|
|Asiya Sulthana A|
|Bhoomika D Pandhare|
|Disha A Ravi|
|Dr Himmat Singh Ratnoo|
|Dr. Chinchu. C|
|Dr. Subrata Sinha|
|Dr. Sudhir Vombatkere|
|Dr. V. Visvanathan|
|Gyan Prakash Tripathi|
|Harjas Singh Bhatia|
|Jade Jeremiah Lyngdoh|
|Jaswitha Reddy G|
|Jawharali P S|
|Jayesh Rajan Krishnan|
|Jeffin Jacob Mathew|
|Jinesh N S|
|Jomon Thomas Lobo|
|KALYANI MENON SEN|
|Karan Giresh Khetwani|
|Karan Jeyakumar Nadar|
|Kishan chander Kafaltiya|
|M. Hamza kapadia|
|Mohammad Adil Hussain|
|Muhammad usman a h|
|Mujeeb Rahman K|
|Narasimha Reddy Donthi|
|Panangattukara KrishnaIyer Mahesh|
|Paramdeep Singh Obheroi|
|Pratham B C|
|Prof Ritu Dewan|
|Radha Holla Bhar|
|Rajiva Bhushan Sahay|
|Rohin Mathew Thomas|
|S Adarsh Rao|
|S G Price|
|Samir J Gosai|
|Sangram V. Jagtap|
|Sarath krishnan K|
|Setu Bandh Upadhyay|
|Sijo James John|
|Sudesh M Raghu|
|Suma E P|
|Suresh chàndra joshi|
|Swarneeka Rajeev Iyer|
|VIVEK K J|
|Venu Madhav Govindu|
|Venu Madhav Govindu|
|Vignesh Balaji V|
|Vishnu MV Nair|
|Vivek N Mohan|
|Wg Cdr Kartar Sainani|
|Yesha Tshering Paul|
|sanal v v|
We earnestly share the hope of all these signatories for a positive governmental response. It is crucial at the present time, when we are in this health emergency, that the government prioritizes easy access to vaccines.
- Joint Statement: Facial Recognition cannot be used for the COVID-19 Vaccine (link)
- BlockSurvey form to endorse the Joint Statement (link)
- Covering Letter and Joint Statement against Aadhaar based FRT for the COVID-19 Vaccine dated April 19, 2021 (link)