Does the UID Reflect India?

Posted by Elonnai Hickok at Dec 27, 2010 12:15 PM |
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On December 17th the Campaign for No UID held a press conference and public meeting in Bangalore. Below is a summary and analysis of the events.

Introduction

Scientifically speaking, we are each unique.  We have unique bodies and minds, and these give rise to unique understandings,  interactions, and perceptions. Despite being unique, we can be put into different categories and classes, one of which is a culture.  A culture is defined by its values, which are reflected in its legal system. Consequently legal systems are always changing – bills are constantly being amended, passed, and retracted in order to make the governing legal structure reflect the ethos of that society. Thus, when analyzing a piece of legislation it is important to ask if that bill is meaningful in a way that   reflects the ideas, values, attitudes, and expectations that a society has.  This is the  question that Usha Ramanathan, Mathew Thomas, and others in the Campaign for No UID have been asking about the UID project, and  urged the public to ask the same question in the press conference and public meeting held on the 17th of December. According to the Campaign for No UID, the project and Bill fail to reflect and meet the current needs that exist in India. The UID Bill, the proposed legislation for the project, authorizes the creation of a centralized database of unique identification numbers that are to be issued to every resident of India. The numbers will act as identity. Recently, the Bill was sent to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance, and is scheduled to be enacted in early 2011.  The UID project is attempting to create a technological solution to the identification problem in India. It is well-known that India faces challenges in identifying its citizens and residents. Individuals either have no identification – restricting their access to society and benefits -- or, in some cases, they have multiple identities, therefore taking advantage of society at the expense of others, or a person does not have any identification – therefore escaping civil duties.  The confusing identity system that exists in India has many negative drawbacks including the facilitation of corruption, illegal immigration, and possible security threats. The UID project attempts to provide a system of identity that is based on individuals’ biometrics, and that places the whole of India on a grid through the issuance of 12 digit Aadhaar numbers. The Campaign for NO UID  does not deny the need for an efficient identity system, is not against technology, and does not deny that the current identity system has problems.  Instead, it believes that the project does not adequately address the issues at hand, while at the same time creating a real prospect of harmful ramifications. 

Benefits for the Poor

Though the UID project only gives identity to an individual, it has been envisioned as a means of ensuring the delivery of benefits to the poor. According to the World Bank, within India 41% of the population lives below the poverty line, and targeting the need to ensure benefits for the poor is an appropriate vision. Furthermore, as reflected in the Right to Food Act, there is a cultural understanding and expectation that the State needs to work to bring benefits to the poor. The point that Ms. Ramanathan draws attention to, though, is that the goal of bringing benefits to the poor is just a vision. The project and the Bill are not structured in a way that guarantee benefits to the poor. Instead, by trying to include the perception of this benefit, the language of the Bill has become too broad. The wide-sweeping language allows room for abuse of how information that is collected will be used.

Appropriate Methodology

Ms. Ramanathan also questions the methodology of the UID project. The collection of biometrics is not an absolute insurer of identity, in the way that DNA would be. A person’s biometrics are in fact very public. They are left on anything one touches, and can easily be reproduced for use by others. Identity theft is thus easily accomplished if biometrics are the only safeguard. Realistically, the vast majority of India’s population would not know what to do or how to seek redress if identities were stolen – indeed, many would not even be aware of the fact that their identity had been stolen. Thus, the project establishes a hierarchy of vulnerability. Those who understand and have access to technology and the legal system are better able to protect their identity (or abuse another’s), and the rest of the population  is at the mercy of the people who possess that knowledge and those connections.

Legal Questions

Ms. Ramanathan also brought up a few legal issues with the UID Bill. Most importantly she pointed out that the UID project is not legal, yet enrollment of individuals has been taking place. Not only is this action undemocratic, but it is presumptuous of the UIDAI to assume that their project will have legal validity. Another legal issue raised by Ms. Ramanathan was in concern with the compulsory nature of the Aadhaar number. Legally the UID Bill does not make the Aadhaar number compulsory. Instead, the project is structured in such a way that the UID number is socially compulsory.  Ms. Ramanathan argues that this is unfair of the UIDAI. If the number were to be truly voluntary, the UID would need to include clauses that prohibit the denial of goods, services, entitlements and benefits for lack of a UID number.  An individual would need to be able to access benefits with alternative forms of identification before the Aadhaar number would be truly voluntary.

Does India Comprehend what the UID Could Bring?

Another fear voiced by Mrs. Ramanathan in her presentation was the level of public comprehension. Even though the project will touch the lives of every human being who comes to India, the majority of the Indian population has not thought through why they support or do not support the project, and most do not comprehend the dangerous implications of the UID project. Connections are not being made and clearly publicized about how the project could be used in the future.  For example, once everyone has a set of personal data that is uploaded on a centralized database, there is a new concern over that data. What is happening to it, who is using it, what is it being used for, who is seeing it, who is analyzing it, what happens if that data is lost? One of the serious implications of the project is  its’ threat to anonymity.  Anonymity results when the personal identity, or personally identifiable information of a person is not known.  Anonymity already exists today in Indian society by default.. This will change, though, with the UID. One’s body will become a traceable marker that will be readily identifiable to law enforcement and other agencies. By issuing numbers to each person, that will be used for every transaction – it will be possible to create a map of the population and tag information about individuals in a way that changes the relationship between the state and the people. Though it is true India could benefit from a lesser degree of anonymity. For instance corruption might be easier to control. The Bill takes no steps, though, to ensure under what conditions anonymity will be preserved. Thus, the project has the potential to be widely misused for intensive surveillance and the policing of populations – not just for illegal activity but for disfavored or unpopular activity as well.

Conclusion

One way to avoid the misuse of data is through the adherence to privacy standards such as how data should be processed, transferred etc. India does not of yet have such a privacy law, and such principles are not reflected in the text of the Bill itself. The fact that the UID bill and project bring into focus principles that are not yet fully reflected in the social and legal framework of society can be problematic. On one hand this Bill can push India to adopt those principles, in which case a data protection and privacy bill must be enacted, and awareness must be raised.  On the other hand, the Bill can simply overshadow the populace, allowing significant violations of privacy and anonymity to take place with no assurance of redress.  As Ms. Ramanathan noted, even though the project is not reflective of Indian society, the way in which the project is being marketed is. The project has been tied to the image of Nandan Nilekani, and the message is clear: the project must be good. The Campaign for No UID is asking the public to look beyond the face of the project, and consider whether or not this is the India they imagine.

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