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Why we need to be afraid of Aadhaar — it's grossly problematic

Astha Kapoor
Astha KapoorMar 25, 2017 | 17:04

Why we need to be afraid of Aadhaar — it's grossly problematic

The government of India has made Aadhaar, India’s unique identification number, mandatory for filing income tax returns, even for those who have PAN cards.

In Parliament, when BJD MP Bhartruhari Mahtab reminded the finance minister of the 2015 Supreme Court order that explicitly states Aadhaar as voluntary for government schemes, and asked if the government was forcing the citizen to abide by its dictate, the FM categorically replied, “Yes we are.”

The recent statement by the finance minister is merely a confirmation and should not obfuscate the efforts this government has taken to make Aadhaar mandatory, in direct contravention of at least 11 Supreme Court rulings.

Not too long ago, the government brought the Aadhaar Act into force using the money bill route in the Parliament, thereby avoiding the much-needed scrutiny for the bill in the Upper House of the Parliament, where the ruling party is in the minority.

The supposed purpose for such coercion is improved efficiency, reduced leakages and a crackdown on corruption. But does Aadhaar deliver on these promises?

pti-aad_032517044257.jpg
At the ground level, no Aadhaar does mean no entitlement. Photo: PTI

The government believes that authentication through Aadhaar will lead to improvement in targeting government benefits and hence it justifies the programme, aggressively, following the “no UID, no benefits” policy.

It has made biometrics mandatory to access lifeline programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Act (MGNREGA) and food subsidies through the Public Distribution System (PDS).

Aadhaar has been made mandatory even for midday meals in schools and the Sarva Sikhsha Abhiyan (SSA), which gives textbooks and uniforms to children between the ages of 6 and 14, thus creating more barriers in access to basic services.

Starting June, farmers will be unable to buy subsidised fertilisers without Aadhaar.

Beyond privacy and safety, exclusion is a problem that comes with Aadhaar. Entitlements are denied in the absence of biometric authentication.

Biometric authentication failures are abundant. Some reasons are old age, excessive manual labour and even dry skin. Iris scanners are not available at many camps for government services, and even when they are, such scans are unreliable to support the elderly due to cataracts, for instance.

Authentication will be an issue for young children whose fingerprints evolve till at least the age of 15.

Aadhaar-enabled machines need connectivity to be able to authenticate real time for disbursement of benefits, and the server is unreliable, unable to process bulk authentication, adding to the ordinary citizens' woes.

Beyond convenience, it is important to examine if biometric authentication indeed has the impact the government intends — does is it reduce leakage?

For instance, in the case of the PDS, the government’s narrative has been that bogus cards and ghost beneficiaries are weeded out, but the exclusion, which we know exists, has not been measured.

Further, the quantity fraud that does not lend full entitlements to beneficiaries at the retail level. A massive source of leakages in the system cannot be checked through authentication, and given that the government is already reporting savings in the PDS, it is likely to be ignored for now.

Recognising the drawbacks, Karnataka High Court has issued a stay on the need for Aadhaar for PDS in the state.

A small encouragement, but at the ground level, no Aadhaar does mean no entitlement.

Aadhaar is problematic at multiple levels. There are growing concerns about the safety of the biometric data and privacy.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) dismissed the recent case of misuse of biometric data by Axis Bank and two other entities as a one-off incident.

No attention was paid to the Reliance Jio salespeople who were caught stealing fingerprints of customers in order to sell multiple SIM cards; the story didn’t even make it to many English language dailies.

The fact that biometric information, fingerprints and iris scans can be captured through high-resolution photographs makes misuse even more tempting for those with malicious intent.

The feverish and seemingly illegal push for Aadhaar is so rapid that it isn’t giving most people the time to examine the vulnerabilities that come with the kind of exposure and coercion the government is exercising by making mandatory the recording and storing biometric information.

Till now, biometric data was made mandatory only for some government entitlements, so no one really bothered about the privacy of the poor.

Murmurs against Aadhaar have been confined to concerned activists and a few Parliamentarians who are attempting to hold the government accountable.

But as Aadhaar grows in stature and prominence, it is being used to extract every bit of information about an individual’s life — from mobile numbers, to bank accounts, to even matrimonial websites that will now demand the number to authenticate users.

With its most recent demand, the government has pushed Aadhaar on India’s salaried, tax-paying class, and the alarm is growing.

Without a privacy law, can we trust the state with all our data?

If not, how can we resist Aadhaar? As we think about this, we must remember a much quoted tweet: Aadhaar is surveillance technology masquerading as secure authentication technology.

Last updated: March 25, 2017 | 20:06
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