Govt wants to link flight tickets to Aadhaar, privacy activists call it a terrible idea

Ministry of Civil Aviation is rolling out Aadhaar-based paperless boarding using biometric verification but experts are critical of the decision.
Govt wants to link flight tickets to Aadhaar, privacy activists call it a terrible idea
Govt wants to link flight tickets to Aadhaar, privacy activists call it a terrible idea
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The Civil Aviation Ministry plans to roll out a project under which domestic passengers can link their Aadhaar to air tickets at the time of booking. This they say would allow passengers to travel to the airport without a valid ID card, as biometric verification will be done at the airport to confirm their identity. Making the boarding process paperless, passengers will, however, need to carry a mobile phone with their e-boarding card, which will then be scanned at security and at the boarding gate. This the Ministry claims will remove cases of fake tickets and help locate missing passengers at airports.

In June last year, the Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Jayant Sinha had launched a report on ‘DigiYatra’ and briefed the media about the ‘DigiYatra’ initiative of the Ministry. He claimed that the initiative will develop a digital ecosystem that will ensure a seamless, consistent and paperless service for the customers.

Under this initiative, the flyers’ biometrics will be checked and verified using infrastructure like retina scan, fingerprint scanners etc and the Aadhaar-linked airline database will show which flight they are to board and which parts of security and boarding procedure they have cleared and which ones are left, thus eliminating the need to show paper ID cards, paper tickets and boarding passes.

The process is not yet finalised and some changes are expected. Earlier this week, Aviation Secretary RN Choubey told the Times of India that the government will issue a template for this “Digi-yatra” by the end of this month and this process could be flagged off at Bengaluru and Hyderabad as early as July 2018. However, linking tickets to Aadhaar is not mandatory and hence, all the airports will continue to keep the existing paper-based boarding system also.

A pilot was conducted at Hyderabad and Bengaluru airports over a year ago and the results of the same are being considered to improve the systems. A spokesperson from Bengaluru International Airport confirmed that there will be changes in the process but no details are known yet as consultations are still going on.

"A Technical Working Committee (TWC) comprising AAI and a few leading private airports are working on it. Specific details of the Policy – currently in the final stages of development – will be communicated by MoCA. As such, until MoCA communicates details of the Digi-Yatra policy it may not be prudent on our part to put out a story. The information we currently have is dated and based on a pilot conducted over a year ago," said the BIAL spokesperson, who confirmed that biometric infrastucture, like retina scan, fingerprint scanning machines etc, were used in the pilot.

However, the move by the Civil Aviation Ministry comes at a time when the Supreme Court is still debating the validity and scope of Aadhaar amidst concerns of big data misuse and surveillance.

Calling the project a terrible idea, Nikhil Pahwa, founder of MediaNama and Internet Freedom Foundation said that fingerprint authentication is a probabilistic science based on percentage accuracy of matching. “Someone will be refused entry or passage at some point in time, because fingerprints may not match. It will always fail for someone somewhere. We've seen high failure rates in Jharkhand,” argued Nikhil.

There have been concerns about fingerprint authentication for people who do some physical labour and senior citizens. Countering the project’s purpose, Nikhil said that the new process will, in fact, end up resulting in long queues and chaos. “Given how incompetent our government is with securing data, this will be just another way that citizens’ data could leak. Aadhaar, if it is allowed to continue, should have a very limited use case, and should not use biometrics. Biometrics, once leaked, are compromised forever, especially because of their permanence.”

report in Medianama also argued that it would be naïve to believe that linking Aadhaar to tickets will eliminate the cases of fake tickets as people who want to travel with fake tickets will continue to use the existing paper-based system.

Mishi Choudhary, a technology lawyer and digital rights activist warned that this was yet another form of making AADHAAR de facto unavoidable.

“The only other place where biometrics based identity has been used for movement in the name of ease and efficiency is in China. It always starts in the name of increased efficiency and ease, quickly devolving into a system where data is gathered and used for control. The Chinese Government can now stop people from buying air and travel tickets based on their social credit score i.e. if it does not approve of someone's political views, ethnic identity etc.”

She questioned why one needed Aadhaar for enabling mobile boarding passes. “Why does one need Aadhaar for enabling mobile boarding passes? Any form of identity card should be acceptable. Paper savings can be achieved without AADHAAR.”

Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher focusing on intelligent transportation systems, questioned the validity of Aadhaar as a whole, given the ongoing case in the Supreme Court. Pointing out inherent contradictions in the government machinery, he said, “The UIDAI and Attorney General in the Supreme Court are contesting that no one can use Aadhaar for surveillance or tracking while the Civil Aviation Ministry wants to also track where a passenger is inside the airport to avoid delays in boarding. The Civil Aviation Ministry probably is not informing the public that Aadhaar is required for their no-fly list program. This is what China is doing to deny its citizens airport/train services based on how obedient they are about government rules.”

Suggesting other ways to reduce paper usage, Srinivas gave examples of airports around the world which, “allow different levels of security checks and faster check-ins for a premium price which the business class travellers are used to. The current process of scanning barcodes is faster. Bringing in any untested technology is simply going to increase boarding time thus resulting in flight delays.”

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