Date:26/06/2011 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/op/2011/06/26/stories/2011062652861200.htm
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UID: we do have doubts, concerns and confusion

AAKASH MEHROTRA

A mammoth project that would lead to millions flowing out of the exchequer definitely needs to be debated at the national level.


Interesting, isn't, when you have people asking for your identity or rather say you are supposed to present your proof of existence. Doesn't it sound like breaching into someone's personal life? A 12-digit number will decide whether you remain a person or an unperson. Oh, I am not hinting at a sci-fi movie, but referring to a biometric reality. Let me welcome you to the ‘Biometric Prison Planet.'

Before I get into the aadhar of ‘Aadhar', I would like to present a fact that this whole idea has faced heat all around the world. But Aadhar is not just another ID card; it is a number, a number to tell you that you are in fact you. With this article I would like to bring to light some of the jokes that Aadhar is bringing to the fore. Well, let's start with the biggest joke — the much-hyped bill was thankfully presented in Parliament in December 2010 and is yet to face the standing committee. Further, the strongest resistance to Aadhar is coming from two eminent members of the National Advisory Council, Jean Dreze and Aruna Roy. A mammoth project that would lead to millions flowing out of the exchequer definitely needs to be debated at the national level. It is a pity that though we are striving on to move towards e-governance, we are missing on e-consultation.

The sad part is that sooner or later we all will have a 12-digit identification number pinned on our chests at the cost of our privacy. One bold statement that has always been presented in defence of the UID (Unique Identification Number) is that it is not mandatory; but ironically it is ubiquitous. So far in India about 15 different types of ID work, but the UID is projected to have the entire database of information of Indians. The real fear is access to such a data would give the government a free hand to profiling, segmenting and targeting a sect, group or religion. This could lead to dangerous consequences. This data, if slipped into the hands of corporates, could be used to serve various purposes.

The UID promises to give the poor their identity, it is a tool for profiling the beneficiary in the PDS, streamlining payments to be made under the MGNREGS and enabling the achievement of targets under the Right to Education or any such government scheme. Service delivery is what it guarantees. But serious doubts have been raised about its being able to rationalise the PDS. Going on the same line, the UID has been advocated as a tool for the poor to avail themselves of the services of the PDS from any part of the country. The distinct reality is that every PDS has a limited amount of ration with it and will in no case be able to answer the numerous calls of migrants. Another aspect being voiced in favour of the UID is its efficacy in streamlining direct cash transfer to the poor by effectively segmenting the poor and the needy. But whether it can really fill the lacunae of governance is the real question.

Apart from that, there is exactly no strong edifice of biometrics on which this mega-structure is to be constructed. Patterns of iris change with age, disease and health; fingerprints can easily be tapped and copied.

Herculean task

Moreover, the problem will come in reduplication of the structure. A register of more than 100 million identities sounds a distant dream. It's a herculean task to build such a colossal database. It is a critical piece of information infrastructure that has to come in place. So far, the project has seen less of IT and infrastructure building and more of politics. Advocated as the biggest step towards social development, the project requires efficient planning at the granule level.

The UID is about convergence of silos of information. The biggest concern, however, at my end is about human ethics — India is home to more than eight million people with corneal blindness and many more have corneal scars and many more suffer from cataract.

Authentification of fingerprints is questionable — there are thousands born without or have lost their hands; or even the workforce involved in manual labour or agriculture has its fingerprints marred. The entire framework is not in place and fails to answer how much of the data collected from fingerprints will be authentic. We can suffer huge technology risks. No question has been raised about the millions of homeless people or the persons who come under the category of third sex, who may not opt to or may not be able to give the information. The project fails to answer many such questions. Questions can always be raised on the abuse of information available with the government.

Many developed countries have retraced their path on the project owing to the issues of citizen privacy. The U.K had to repeal an Act of national identity register following large-scale protests from the citizens. Hungary and Germany look upon the project as a violation of privacy. Political pundits in these countries have termed it the “national e-surveillance act.”

The government has shown sheer urgency in going for the UID project. If the project fails to confront the various questions and doubts being raised, it would hurt democracy. This is a dark joke making its rounds in the political corridors with the idea of investing an identity in every citizen. It is prudent at this stage for the government to have a frank debate on the matter and to put in public the entire structure before it goes into investing this enormous amount of money which could otherwise be used to lift millions out of poverty.

(The writer's email is trulyakash@gmail.com)

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