Digital travel and the myth of privacy

In the absence of central data protection legislation in India, the use of facial recognition technology or any other tech-related interventions by the state is a huge concern. (Pic: Pixabay)

By Kumar Kartikeya

Would you have believed it a decade ago if somebody told you that the Aadhaar card would be mandatory to travel? Probably not! But it is now becoming a reality. Thanks to Digi Yatra, a biometric boarding technology that is the most recent chapter in the country’s digitization folklore which would require us to provide our Aadhaar and biometric details for domestic air travel.

On 1 July 2019, Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi International Airport launched testing of a facial recognition technology under Digi Yatra’s banner. Through this, the government plans to promise “a seamless, paperless service experience at every touch point of their journey”. After some delays, Digi Yatra was ultimately rolled out for domestic flights out of Delhi, Bengaluru, and Varanasi in December 2019. Bengaluru, Kolkata, Pune, and Vijayawada launched the Digi Yatra system later in 2022.

Airports are just one part of the story where we observe the state’s surveillance in the name of accessible travel. 

The Indian Railways has been testing the usage of biometric data for passenger seats for general category passengers. The railways intend to use this technology to track known or repeated offenders. The government, on the other hand, can already trace our travels on national highways via Fast Tag. 

These technologies pose a huge threat to privacy as it is under constant threat from these modern and sophisticated forms of surveillance systems. Instances also show their targeted application by the state to suppress the dissent arising in society. Needless to mention that such practices adversely affect the democratic foundations of the country. For example, facial recognition technology was used to identify protesters during the CAA-NRC protests in 2019 and even in framers’ protests. Former top cop of Uttar Pradesh said facial recognition helped police in Uttar Pradesh, detain a “handful” of the more than 1,100 people arrested for alleged links to violence during protests. Similarly during the North East Delhi violence, Delhi Police used facial recognition technology to detain protestors.

With Digi Yatra, one might argue that all facial biometric data is destroyed after 24 hours and thus there is no need to be concerned about privacy issues but that might not be true. It was proven before the Supreme Court during the Aadhaar verdict that metadata generated as part of these large surveillance technologies might well be utilized to surveil people. As a result of which the apex court ordered the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to erase all metadata every six months.

How does it work? 

The idea behind Digi Yatra is apparently simple. Users may apply for a Digi Yatra ID using the Digi Yatra app or at an airport enrolment kiosk. Users must confirm their credentials using their Aadhaar and submit a photograph of themselves to generate the ID. Users may then link their boarding card from a participating airline to their Digi Yatra ID. They may then enter the airport and complete security by passing through designated gates utilizing face recognition technology. 

Addressing the concern 

It becomes important to note that similar processes in airports around the world have met with strong criticism centered on privacy; some have raised the point that opting out of biometric identification has been made convoluted by design; others have questioned its legality, and others have raised alarms regarding the misuse of facial recognition data by governments and private vendors.

In the absence of central data protection legislation in India, the use of facial recognition technology or any other tech-related interventions by the state is a huge concern. The Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022, the Union Government’s most recent personal data protection law, unilaterally provides the Union Government with wide powers to obtain and use an individual’s digital personal data without their consent in the “public good.” The Digital Personal Data Protection Bill also states that any data can be used for vague purposes such as “public interest” and “any fair and reasonable purpose” without the consent of the person whose data it is – because people are “deemed” to have given their consent for the same at the time of using a particular app or enrolling for Aadhaar programme.  

The issue with Digi Yatra is in terms of privacy and the lack of legislation to protect the same. One of the key concerns with the deployment of all such futuristic technological systems is how the government may abuse them against its own citizens. For instance, by placing people on no-fly lists and preventing political activists, journalists, and dissenters from traveling.  In 2019, after the abrogation of Article 370 many Kashmiri lawyers, activists, politicians, and businessmen were listed on the no-fly list. While no-fly lists are useful for punishing unruly travelers, the lack of due process and accountability in the entire procedure leaves it open for misuse at the hands of the regulators. It is important to understand that travel surveillance across the country does not affect everyone equally, rather it affects people disproportionately based on socioeconomic and political reasons. 

As the government prepares every airport and form of transportation to be digitized, monitored, and controlled, more people will perceive these security precautions as legitimate. And, privacy concerns will be shrugged back, regardless of how these technologies are blatantly in violation of  various important judgments and recognized practices regarding people’s right to privacy. 

Kartikeya is a legal researcher and student of Constitutional law.

The Analysis (TA) is a legal advocacy and research group working on the issues of environment, health, gender, law and human rights. Feel free to share your submissions with us at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s