Government app UMANG (Unified Mobile Application for New-age Governance) wants to introduce the use of facial recognition for biometric verification using in-built features of a smartphone, according to recent news.
The app, launched in 2017, is a platform to avail more than 2000 e-governance services provided by the central and state governments. It is developed by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) along with National e-Governance Division (NeGD) to drive mobile governance in India.
This year the traffic on the app increased drastically, especially after the pandemic, as people’s physical movements and interactions were curtailed.
The article discusses several advantages of introducing the use of a smartphone’s in-built features like face IDs for biometric verification and what India needs to consider for its safe deployment.
Advantages Of Using Face ID For Biometric Verification
UMANG has made access for various e-governance services easy for users. However, some of the services that need biometric authentication require the person to buy an external device.
Currently, there are less than ten devices that are compatible with the app, and they cost within the range of ₹2,000 to 4,000. Hence, the use of an in-built biometric authentication will remove the dependency on the availability and affordability of these devices.
Not only can it save time, but it can also make the services available in the comfort of one’s own home. This is especially useful for older people who need to avoid stepping out during the pandemic as well as working people who can use the app at a time of their convenience without worrying about an external device.
At the same time, an Aadhaar Card service is also added to one’s UMANG app when logged in. The Aadhaar Card has seen widespread adoption as more than 1.27 billion people cards have already been generated. The use of face ID in Aadhaar Cards will make the verification process even easier.
Lastly, theft identification becomes easier if the process is dependent on third-party biometric devices since the security standards might not be the same. If the smartphone’s in-built features are used for biometric verification, one will get the same security as the smartphone.
Concerns Of Implementing Face IDs For Biometric Verification
The collection of any biometric data, especially face IDs, has become a matter of concern in the data community as they realise the potential harm it can do in terms of surveillance and privacy.
Robust laws and regulations are needed to safeguard one’s freedom and privacy when personal data is collected by the state. However, the existing legal infrastructure in India does not address this. The Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 as well, has been criticised heavily for enhancing existing surveillance powers of the government as it enables projects like nationwide facial recognition programmes among other surveillance projects.
Hence, the face ID feature in UMANG should not be introduced before robust personal data protection laws are passed in the country.
Apart from surveillance, there have been many examples of misclassification in facial recognition systems due to the lack of inclusive data. This is very much a possibility due to the small user-base in UMANG, as only those people who can afford smartphones can use the app.
Thus irrespective of any laws, the policy of Umang should prohibit sharing face ID data or any other biometric information with law enforcement agencies. Or at least prohibit the development of face recognition algorithms from the data collected through the app.
Thirdly, the collection of sensitive data like face ID should have strong security. Government databases in the past, including Aadhaar, have not been proven to be safe and have been vulnerable to hackers.
Thus, with such a quick adoption of the UMANG app, it is imperative that the government first define and follow strong data security standards before it collects such sensitive data.
Lastly, UMANG does not have any redressal mechanisms. It provides an email address to report grievances but does not have any provisions for what happens when there is a misuse of personal data. Misuse of a facial database without any consequences can have serious repercussions.
Tech-policy think-tanks and oversight bodies across the world have warned against the use of facial recognition technologies, especially the ones that can lead to mass surveillance. Some have even called for a complete ban until robust legal frameworks and redressal mechanisms are addressed.
Thus, while there are considerable advantages of using face IDs in the UMANG app, it should not be implemented before proper laws, to restrict the use of the data collected through face IDs, are established.