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India's Biometric Identification Programs and Privacy Concerns

Posted by Divij Joshi at Mar 31, 2013 08:40 AM |
The invasiveness of individual identification coupled with the fallibility of managing big data which biometric identification presents poses a huge risk to individual privacy in India.


Divij Joshi is a 2nd year at NLS. He is interning with the Centre for Internet and Society for the privacy project. This research was undertaken as part of the 'SAFEGUARDS' project that CIS is undertaking with Privacy International and IDRC.


Biometric technology looks to be the way ahead for the Indian government in its initiatives towards identification. From the Unique Identity Scheme (Aadhaar) to the National Population Register and now to Election ID’s, [1] biometric identification seems to have become the government’s new go-to solution for all kinds of problems. Biometrics prove to be an obvious choice in individual identification schemes – it’s easiest to identify different individuals by their faces and fingerprints, unique and integral aspects of individuals – yet, the unflinching optimism in the use of biometric technology and the collection of biometric data on a massive scale masks several concerns regarding compromises of individual privacy.

‘Big Data’ and Privacy Issues

Biometric data is going to be collected under several existing and proposed identification schemes of the government, from the Centralized Identities Data Register of the UID to the draft DNA Profiling Bill which seeks to improve criminal forensics and identification. With the completion of the biometric profiling under the UID, the Indian government will have the largest database of personal biometric data in the world. [3] With plans for the UID to be used for several different purposes — as a ration card, for opening a banking account, for social security and healthcare and several new proposed uses emerging everyday,[1] the creation of ‘Big Data’ becomes possible. ‘Big Data’ is characterized by the volume of information that is produced, the velocity by which data is produced, the variety of data produced and the ability to draw new conclusions from an analysis of the data.[2] The UID will generate “Big Data” as it is envisioned that the number will be used in every transaction for any platform that adopts it — for all of the 1.2 billion citizens of India. In this way the UID is different any other identity scheme in India, where the identifier is used for a specific purpose at a specific point of time, by a specific platform, and generates data only in connection to that service. Though the creation of “Big Data” through the UID could be beneficial through analysing data trends to target improved services, for example, at the same time it can be problematic in case of a compromise or breach, or if generated information is analyzed to draw new and unintended conclusions about individuals without their consent, and using information for purposes the individuals did not mean for it to be used.

Biometric ID and Theft of Private Data

The government has touted identification schemes such as the UID and NPR as a tool to tackle rural poverty, illegal immigration and national security issues and with this as the premise, the concerns about privacy seem to have been left in the lurch. The optimism driving the programmes also means that its potential fallibility is often overlooked in the process. Biometric technology has been proven time and again to be just as easily jeopardized as any other and the threat of biometric identity theft is as real and common as something like credit card fraud, with fingerprints and iris scans being easily capable of replication and theft without the individual owners consent. [2] In fact, compromise or theft of biometric identity data presents an even greater difficulty than other forms of ID because of the fact that it is unique and intrinsic, and hence, once lost cannot be re-issued or reclaimed like traditional identification like a PIN, leaving the individual victim with no alternative system for identification or authentication. This would also defeat the entire purpose behind any authentication and identification schemes. With the amount of personal data that the government plans to store in databases using biometrics, and without adequate safeguards which can be publicly scrutinized, using this technology would be a premature and unsafe move.

Biometric data and Potential Misuse

Centralised data storage is problematic not only for the issues with data compromise and identity theft, but the problems of potential third-party misuse in the absence of an adequate legal framework for protecting such personal data, and proper technical safeguards for the same, as has been pointed out by the Standing Committee on Finance in its report on the UIDAI project.[4] The threat to privacy which these massive centralized databases pose has led to the shelving of similar programmes in England as well as France. [4] Further, concerns have been voiced about data sharing and access to the information contained in the biometric database. The biometric database is to be managed by several contracting companies based in the US. These same companies have legal obligations to share any data with the US government and Homeland Security. [5]

A second, growing concern over biometric identification schemes is over the use of biometrics for state surveillance purposes. While the UID’s chief concern on paper has been development, poverty, and corruption alleviation, there is no defined law or mandate which restricts the number from being used for other purposes, hence giving rise to concerns of a function creep - a shift in the use of the UID from its original intended purpose. For example, the Kerala government has recently proposed a scheme whereby the UID would be used to track school children.[5] Other schemes such as the National Population Register and the DNA Profiling Bill have been specifically set up with security of the State as the mandate and aim.[6] With the precise and accurate identification which biometrics offers, it also means that individuals are that much easier to continuously survey and track, for example, by using CCTV cameras with facial recognition software, the state could have real-time surveillance over any activities of any individual.[7]

With all kinds of information about individuals connected by a single identifier, from bank accounts to residential and voter information, the threat of increased state surveillance, and misuse of information becomes more and more pronounced. By using personal identifiers like fingerprints or iris scans, agencies can potentially converge data collected across databases, and use it for different purposes. It also means that individuals can potentially be profiled through the information provided from their various databases, accessed through identifiers, which leads to concerns about surveillance and tracking, without the individuals knowledge. There are no Indian laws or policies under data collection schemes which address concerns of using personal identifiers for tracking and surveillance.[8] Even if such such use is essential for increased national security, the implementation of biometrics for constant surveillance under the present regime ,where individuals are not notified about the kind of data being collected and for what its being used, would be a huge affront on civil liberties, as well as the Right to Privacy, and prove to be a powerful and destructive weapon in the hands of a police state. Without these concerns being addressed by a suitable, publicly available policy, it could pose a huge threat to individual privacy in the country. As was noted by the Deputy Prime Minister of the UK, Nick Clegg, in a speech where he denounced the Identity Scheme of the British government, saying that “This government will end the culture of spying on its citizens. It is outrageous that decent, law-abiding people are regularly treated as if they have something to hide. It has to stop. So there will be no ID card scheme. No national identity register, a halt to second generation biometric passports.” [6]

Biometric technology has been useful in several programmes and policies where its use has been open to scrutiny and restricted to a specific function, for example, the recent use of facial recognition in Goa to tackle voter fraud, and similar schemes being taken up by the Election Commission. [7] However, with lack of any guidelines or specific legal framework covering the implementation and collection of biometric data schemes, such schemes can quickly turn into ‘biohazards’ for personal liberty and individual privacy, as has been highlighted above and these issues must be brought to light and adequately addressed before the Government progresses on biometric frontiers.







[7]. Supra note 1. says:
Apr 06, 2013 08:47 AM

Indeed you make a good case for proceeding with caution or haste with collecting "big data" and implementing national level biometric schemes due to data handling concerns and privacy concerns, for which neither does a well-thought parliamentary-legal framework exists, nor does an understanding of how to build systems that can handle such "big data" responsibly.

However, the crux of the argument in favour of collecting "big data" is the promise of reaching the "excluded" who seem to become victims of our paper-bureaucracy/corruption or such. As much as I agree with the "privacy arguments" being put forward by internet and new media advocates, where is the case for the millions of Indians who DO NOT (yet?) care for privacy of their names/numbers. I think this really needs a debate where such voices need to be brought forward and engaged with. CIS should try and conduct focus groups in urban slums and villages and understand what "privacy" means to many people who remain outside this debate. Who knows, there might be surprises - but with my present experience, I feel that they would dismiss this concern as marginal.

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