Watchful eyes

In recent months, DigiYatra, a facial recognition-based boarding system, is facing increasing backlash over legal ambiguities, data transparency issues, and alleged involuntary registration.
File photo of passengers checking in
File photo of passengers checking in

BENGALURU: Earlier this month, a passenger boarding a flight at the Hyderabad International Airport noticed an airline staff member taking pictures of every passenger at the boarding gate. When the passenger later inquired about the incident on social media, the airline’s official Twitter account response shocked netizens.

The airline explained that the process was part of DigiYatra, a voluntary, paperless onboarding initiative that uses Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) to allow passengers to pass through security checkpoints without physical documents at select airports across the country, including Bangalore International Airport (BIAL).

Since its launch in late 2022, the initiative has consistently raised significant privacy concerns. The incident at Hyderabad Airport brought these concerns into sharp focus. Passengers were photographed without explicit consent, contradicting the voluntary nature of DigiYatra.

Disha Verma, Associate Policy Counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), attributes these issues to lack of regulation and oversight of facial recognition technology (FRT) in India. She notes that DigiYatra’s reliance on FRT is problematic due to its sensitive nature, involving biometric data, travel information, and personal details, which raises concerns about mass surveillance, profiling, and data misuse.

“Globally, these risks are well-documented, and they are no different in India,” she says, adding that the public-private partnership nature of DigiYatra complicates transparency regarding data storage and handling. “When we file Right to Information (RTI) requests about data storage and infrastructure, we are often met with refusals on the grounds that it is a private entity.

Conversely, the private organisation running DigiYatra is not obligated to disclose this information either,” she explains. Furthermore, Verma points out that DigiYatra’s vaguely-worded privacy policy allows for the sharing of data with law enforcement and undisclosed third parties for various reasons, including promotional purposes. “This contradicts their claims of not storing data. They have recently acknowledged the gaps in their privacy policy and promised to work on a new one, but the current situation still leaves much to be desired,” she adds.

Dark Patterns

Meanwhile, there has been a steady stream of travellers sharing their worsening experiences at airports due to DigiYatra. Many have reported coercive tactics and dark patterns used to enrol unwilling, or worse, unwitting travellers in DigiYatra. Anand Sankar, a Bengalurean, describing his experience earlier this year, says,

“They want to make the non-DigiYatra queue disappear so people in a hurry have no choice but to use DigiYatra. My experience was frustrating. I realised that there was only one line available for people who chose not to enrol, and it was at the end of the terminal. The funniest thing was that there was a DigiYatra representative in that queue as well, trying to enrol people into the service.”

Similarly, Vinay Kumar, another Bengalurean, says, “During my visit to the airport after July last year, I noticed that many people were simply asked to click ‘yes’ for consent at the gate, even if they were not in the DigiYatra line. The staff at the gate seemed to be acting as ushers, clicking ‘yes’ for everyone.

When I said I didn’t want it, they clicked ‘no’ and I just went through.” He further adds, “In my experience, DigiYatra doesn’t make much difference. Although I have never used it, I’ve noticed there are more DigiYatra lines than non-DigiYatra lines. If you don’t opt for DigiYatra, you will be standing in a queue. Sometimes, due to overcrowding and slow processing in the DigiYatra line, I have gone through faster on the normal line.”

Representatives from BIAL and DigiYatra did not respond to our request for comments.

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