Efficiency vs privacy threat — Andhra govt, employees spar over facial recognition attendance app

Efficiency vs privacy threat — Andhra govt, employees spar over facial recognition attendance app

Jagan Reddy govt wants employees to use facial recognition application to track attendance & location for 'better service delivery', but employees flag lack of smartphones, privacy issues.

Representational image | File photo of Andhra Pradesh CM YS Jagan Mohan Reddy | Twitter/@ysjagan

Representational image | File photo of Andhra Pradesh CM YS Jagan Mohan Reddy | Twitter/@ysjagan

Hyderabad: Objections voiced by state government employees in Andhra Pradesh over the Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy administration’s decision to introduce an app using a facial recognition software to track staff attendance and location at the time of clocking in, have been mounting in the past weeks, with municipal and sanitation workers among the latest to join the protests,

While the government has said that the aim of the software is to ensure transparency and efficiency of working by state departments and timely delivery of service and welfare schemes to the public, one of the concerns raised by the employees is that many of them neither have smartphones, nor know how to use it. Threat to privacy is another issue weighing on their minds.

“I have never used a smartphone, nor do I know how to operate it. Someone from the department told me I have to learn how to use a phone and then add something into my phone to give my attendance. Now, I will have to spend an additional amount for the phone which is very difficult from my monthly expenses,” said 40-year-old K. Shyamala, a sanitation worker from Ongole.

Although her department is yet to introduce the app-based attendance system, she is scared that the absence of a smartphone and her lack of technical knowhow may create problems for her.

The Andhra Pradesh government in December issued an order stating all government employees, including contract and outsourced workers, will use facial recognition application to clock in their attendance and the same will be used for their leave management too. ThePrint has a copy of the order.

Currently, government employees in Andhra Pradesh use an Aadhaar-enabled biometric attendance system to mark their attendance.

The government had introduced the facial recognition based system in schools last year to track teachers’ attendance, but even that had been met with backlash.

The latest order, covering all government departments and levels of employees, will be implemented in a phased manner.

Meanwhile, Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher working on data and governance, said if the government really wants to ensure efficient governance and welfare, then the same should be applied at the topmost level, such as for the Chief Minister.

“If we’re talking about efficient governance, why not the same be used by a Chief Minister or his cabinet ministers? We’d want to know how much work they are doing and when they are coming in,” said Kodali.

He added: “The Data Protection Bill (draft) does not give much rights (safeguards) to workers when it comes to sharing data, but employers can collect employees’ data on certain grounds.” According to the researcher, facial recognition is part of Andhra government’s larger picture of real time governance, where data from individuals is being collected at every level.

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How it works

Acting on the government’s order, an app named ‘APFRS’ has been developed under the purview of the state’s ITE&C department. The app had more than 1 lakh downloads on Google Play Store till last week.

Once the app is downloaded, an employee has to enter his/her id and then proceed to a mobile-based verification through an OTP (one time password) which will also activate the SMS (text) notifications. Then the employee’s facial characteristics are captured and the data is stored on the app. A geo-location, based on an employee’s role, is also fed in the app which means the attendance (through facial recognition) will be accepted only if the employee is in and around his office premises.

For instance, if an employee works in the secretariat and has to go to the high court for some official purpose (as part of his job or field duty), then he/she will be allowed to give attendance from the court premises too. The locations are pre-defined based on the role.

“The employee id is maintained in our internal server (CMFS) system and is linked to the part where we keep track of salary payment and all. This is not just an attendance system but we want to develop it as an e-employee record. Individual profiles on the app will also contain each employee’s salary details, leaves, their GPF (Provident Fund savings) and insurance details. We want it to become a fully mobile employee record system,” information technology (IT) secretary, Saurabh Gaur, told ThePrint.

One of the reasons why Andhra government is pushing for facial recognition attendance is because they want to ensure “transparent & on-time delivery of all government welfare services, launched for the public”, IT minister Gudivada Amarnath told ThePrint.

Another reason for preferring facial recognition over biometric is the lapses and misuse of the biometric system, claimed officials. In September last year, a Primary Health Care centre (PHC) doctor was suspended for using a fake thumb (artificial rubber thumb) to forge his attendance.

Amarnath also said that the government did not have data of lower level employees and there were duplicate entries. So, facial recognition was brought in as a foolproof attendance system, he claimed.

Threat to privacy

Employees have, however, raised several concerns over the new rule. Apart from issues like lack of smartphones, working in poor network areas and the app not being suitable for field jobs, one of their greatest concerns is threat to privacy and personal data.

“Why should I expose my contacts, photos, banking app data or any other personal data of mine, which is in my mobile, to an app run by the government? No matter how safe it is, why should I take the risk of exposing, will this not pose the risk of profiling us?” asked Askara Rao, general secretary, Andhra Pradesh Government Employees Association.

He added: “When a biometric system is already in place, why have they introduced a new system? Is there no accountability of an employee? Does this not violate our freedom and privacy? It feels like the government is watching us.”

“The app is particular about clocking attendance from the office location. But what about village-level workers, ASHA workers, ANM (auxiliary nurse midwife) and field workers who keep roaming villages? How will they submit attendance? There are also set office timings in the app, several workers in the village start way early in the morning, then where do the extra hours go?” Rao, who is an employee of the state’s Health Department, asked.

The government, last year, was also planning to use facial recognition technology to identify teachers protesting against the government’s pension scheme and initiate necessary action against them.

Gaur however, brushed aside concerns over the app being a threat to privacy saying the app does not have access to any data except employees’ location.

“We understand their concerns, but we are not tracking them in real time. The location is just required to see if they’re at the office at the concerned time. We also understand the concerns of field workers, so we’re working out solutions to enable an option saying ‘on tour,’ for those on field all the time,” he added.

Health, police and revenue department officials too have voiced concerns over the functioning of the app, pointing out how they do not have fixed timings.

“Any problem which has been flagged by any section of employees will be addressed after reviewing it thoroughly. Intention is, timely delivery of services, but not to trouble any section of employees… Safeguarding individual privacy is always our highest priority by our government and in accordance to that, any action which breaches it, will be reviewed immediately and appropriate technical protocols shall be incorporated,” Amarnath told ThePrint.

The implementation of the app is still in its initial stages. Health, Panchayati Raj and other departments are yet to implement it and will do so eventually, said Gaur.

Gaur lauded the steps taken by the government for effective implementation of the facial recognition app and pointed out that as part of its move to test the app in all sectors, the government has already introduced it in some schools.

Meanwhile, elaborating on the employees’ concern of privacy threat, Kodali said: “Is facial recognition a form of surveillance, of course yes — it is and the app also asks permission to access photos. They’ve already started using facial recognition in some  schools to take students’ attendance, but will this help them in development in any way? No, it does not. It is an additional data collection exercise which the government might use later.”

According to Askara Rao, there are more than 20 different apps alone for medical and health department employees (of different levels) to enter daily data — starting from ANM workers to the highest level, said health department employees.

“We’re not entirely against the idea of facial recognition. But, ask the government to supply us phones because we do not want to download it on our own phones. The government should address all our concerns before we agree to use it,” Askara Rao said.

(Edited by Geethalakshmi Ramanathan)

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