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The Uncertain Future of India's Plan to Biometrically Identify Everyone

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, August 28 2014

Biometric data collection in Howrah, India (Photo: Biswarup Ganguly)

Last Sunday an 11-year-old boy in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southeast India, hung himself from a ceiling fan as his family slept. He was allegedly driven to this act after being denied an Aadhaar card—formally known as Unique Identification (UID)—which he was told he needed to attend school. The card is one arm of India's sprawling scheme to collect the biometric data, including fingerprints and iris scans, of its 1.2 billion citizens and residents, and is quickly becoming practically, if not legally, mandatory, for nearly every aspect of life, from getting married to buying cooking gas to opening a bank account. More than 630 million residents have already enrolled and received their unique 12-digit identification number.

Since its launch in 2010, people have raised a number of questions and concerns about Aadhaar, citing its effects on privacy rights, potential security flaws, and failures in functionality. India's poor, who were supposed to be the biggest beneficiaries of the program, are actually most at risk of being excluded from UID, and there is no evidence that biometric identification has curtailed corruption. The newly-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi lambasted the UID program as a candidate but in July did an about-face, calling for the enrollment process to be expedited and supporting a UID-linked social assistance program. In all likelihood, the world's largest experiment in biometric identification will continue.

There are still a number of unanswered questions about the future of the program. Although created in large part as a way of more efficiently and less corruptly dispersing government subsidies, last year the Supreme Court ruled that the Aadhaar card could not be made mandatory to receive government assistance. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) operates in a kind of legal limbo. Modi is said to have instructed his Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to resolve these legal problems.

Sorting out the legal issues is imperative if UID numbers are going to be linked to Modi's proposed financial inclusion program that aims to bring 75 million additional households into the country's banking system by 2018.

There is also the possibility that UID will be merged, absorbed or superseded by the National Population Register (NPR), yet another biometric identification system. The NPR, unlike Aadhaar, is mandatory for all residents. In addition to fingerprints and iris scans, NPR collects information on familial relationships, nationality, occupation and education level. There is a great deal of overlap between the two programs, which has been a source of conflict between government agencies in the past. The home ministry, for example, argues that government subsidies should be disbursed through NPR, not UID.

There is also speculation that UID could be picked up as part of Digital India, Modi's ambitious plan to modernize India by building national broadband infrastructure, ensuring universal mobile service access, creating e-government services, and establishing a “cradle-to-grave digital identity for every citizen of the country—unique, lifelong, online and authenticable [sic].”

In spite of UID's tenuous position and uncertain future, it has become “essential” in nearly every facet of life. The Delhi government is rolling out a suite of e-government services, starting with marriage registration, that will require a UID. Fishermen in Gujarat have been told they cannot go out to sea without biometric identification.

Then there is Kora Balakrishna, the 11-year-old who committed suicide after being denied an Aadhaar card because he has webbed fingers. His school headmaster had instructed him to get one as a prerequisite for study and, per one news outlet, a mid-day meal. An investigation into the incident has been ordered. Pravin Kumar, a local administrative official, said webbed fingers are not a legitimate reason for rejection from the program.

A screenshot of the UIDAI website.

“There are a number of other ways to certify. The concerned authority or manager at the centre can certify the disorder and issue a card,” Kumar said. He added that students should have access to benefits even if they are not enrolled in Aadhaar.

An Imperfect Foundation

As Aadhaar (which means 'foundation' in Hindi) becomes mandatory by default, the consequences of being left out become more serious. A contractor for UIDAI estimates that, in India, fingerprints are an unusable biometric in 15 percent of the population, or roughly 200 million people, because manual labor has worn away the pads of the fingers. The fact is, biometric identification is not infallible, especially on the scale they are acting on in India.

One risk is of a false positive match: when an individual, who is not yet enrolled, tries to enroll and is misidentified as someone already in the system, and denied a new card. The Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore has found—unsurprisingly—that this happens at a much higher rate in the field than it does in laboratory settings.

The converse possibility is that a person manages to register more than once, or enrolls a false identity. For example: images of dogs, trees and chairs have all made their way onto Aadhaar cards. Investigations have found that fake Aadhaar cards are easy to acquire, for a price. One family recently discovered three Aadhaar cards in their mail pile that used their address but featured complete strangers. Schools have used fake UID numbers to pad the number of students they educate so as to guarantee or increase the number of teaching positions.

The investment group CLSA estimated in 2012 that in the next five years, 40 percent of $250 billion earmarked for government assistance programs would never make it to the intended target. UID has been marketed as a way to prevent low-level corruption, like the siphoning of subsidies by middlemen, but allegations of fraud and security holes make it seem doubtful that UID can live up to those claims.

Sunil Abraham, the Executive Director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, told techPresident that there is little evidence that Aadhaar cards have or will reduce corruption.

“I think from our field trials,” Abraham said, “that number one, people are not certain how the corruption happens at this point in time, and number two, people on the ground have no idea how the technology will defeat that kind of corruption. There is no way we can even track whether there is substantial reduction in corruption.”

He explained that there are two kinds of corruption, retail and wholesale. Retail corruption happens at the bottom of the pyramid and wholesale corruption at the top, before the subsidies even reach the bottom of the pyramid.

“If we had really been worried about wholesale corruption, then we shouldn't have bothered with registering poor people,” Abraham said, “but all politicians [instead].”

Abraham is not alone in contesting the UIDAI's claims that Aadhaar can reduce corruption. One Member of Parliament (MP), Rajeev Chandrashekhar, has written:

The fundamental use of Aadhaar, i.e., that of identifying citizens that are entitled to specific benefits – falls flat. Because it continues to use the same data that is causing the corruption and leakage i.e., BPL [Below Poverty Line] cards and other traditional forms of ID. In summary, the data that Aadhaar uses is the same historically compromised data and identification. There has been no evidence or any data put out by the Government that there is any improvement on targeting subsidies.

If the government officials who created Aadhaar imagined their program would somehow be impervious to the country's endemic corruption and vast inequality, they were wrong. Anyone with money or connections can purchase a forged card and defraud the system; meanwhile, the poorest in the country run the risk of being falsely rejected by the system, with no easy recourse. Instead of uplifting the poorest by giving them a stable right to basic resources, it further exposes the most vulnerable strata of society to the vagaries of the system.

This might seem incredible, since the idea was first proposed in 2006 as a “Unique ID for Below Poverty Line (BPL) families.” How could a program initially created for the poor end up putting them at risk?

Usha Ramanathan, a law researcher, suggests that a beneficial program for the poor was never the goal.

She writes:

It is significant that the UIDAI set out its mandate as "(issuing) UID numbers to all residents in the country" while promoting the project as having the "basic objective" of "improved benefits service delivery, especially to the poor and marginalized sections of society". The poor thus provide the justification for the larger project of databasing a whole population.

Yet the poor are subject to a disproportionate amount of pressure to participate. The consequences of opting out for a wealthy individual might be marginal, but the poor do not have that freedom.

Ramanathan explains:

In India, the language of voluntary enrolment [sic] has already given way to mandatory enrolment [sic] and seeding the UID number to get food in the public distribution system, to get work, to get cooking gas, to receive scholarships and pensions, to open and operate bank accounts, to register marriages, in rental agreements and sale deeds and wills. The poor have little choice in the matter.

She goes even further, arguing that the system, by demanding the poor "prove that they are worthy of welfare" time and time again, further marginalizes and punishes people for their poverty.

"Systems that tag, track, profile the poor and place them under surveillance have consequences beyond the denial of services, and enter into the arena of criminalizing poverty," Ramanathan concludes.

The list of privacy, security and ethical concerns goes on: Malavika Jayaram, a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, gave a presentation at the Center earlier this year on India's biometric database that touched on the problems with using the body as password. Once one's biometric information is in a database, what prevents someone—a government official, a hacker—from accessing that information and using it?

Sunil Abraham pointed out the ease with which someone's biometric information can be acquired. We leave fingerprints wherever we go, and capturing an iris scan can be as easy as taking a photo. Furthermore, irises and fingerprints cannot be reissued or changed once compromised (unless you are Tom Cruise's character in the sci-fi thriller Minority Report). It gives the phrase 'identity theft' a whole new layer of significance.

Now that it is clear Modi's government will forge ahead with this scheme, in one way or another, it remains to be seen whether any of these concerns will be addressed and remediated. Questions abound.

In 2012, The Economist published an article on the UID that began:

For a country that fails to meet its most basic challenges—feeding the hungry, piping clean water, fixing roads—it seems incredible that India is rapidly building the world's biggest, most advanced, biometric database of personal identities.

Incredible indeed. For those same reasons, however, the number of hurdles, hiccups, and headaches surrounding Aadhaar do not come as a surprise. But they do come at a cost.

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