Do we need the Aadhar scheme?

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Feb 03, 2012 10:11 AM |
"Decentralisation and privacy are preconditions for security. Digital signatures don’t require centralised storage and are much more resilient in terms of security", Sunil Abraham in the Business Standard on 1 February 2012.

We don’t need Aadhar because we already have a much more robust identity management and authentication system based on digital signatures that has a proven track record of working at a “billions-of-users” scale on the internet with reasonable security. The Unique Identification (UID) project based on the so-called “infallibility of biometrics” is deeply flawed in design. These design disasters waiting to happen cannot be permanently thwarted by band-aid policies.

Biometrics are poor authentication factors because once they are compromised they cannot be re-secured unlike digital signatures. Additionally, an individual’s biometrics can be harvested remotely without his or her conscious cooperation. The iris can be captured remotely without a person’s knowledge using a high-res digital camera.

Biometrics are poor identification factors in a country where the registrars have commercial motivation to create ghost identities. For example, bank managers trying to achieve targets for deposits by opening benami accounts. Biometrics for these ghost identities can be imported from other countries or generated endlessly using image processing software. The de-duplication engine at the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) will be fooled into thinking that these are unique residents.

An authentication system does not require a centralised database of authentication factors and transaction details. This is like arguing that the global system of e-commerce needs a centralised database of passwords and logs or, to use an example from the real world, to secure New Delhi, all citizens must deposit duplicate keys to their private property with the police.

Decentralisation and privacy are preconditions for security. The “end-to-end principle” used to design internet security is also in compliance with Gandhian principles of Panchayat Raj. Digital signatures don’t require centralised storage of private keys and are, therefore, much more resilient in terms of security.

Biometrics as authentication factors require the government to store biometrics of all citizens but citizens are not allowed to store biometrics of politicians and bureaucrats. The state authenticates the citizen but the citizen cannot conversely authenticate the state. Digital signatures as an authentication factor, on the other hand, does not require this asymmetry since citizens can store public keys of state actors and authenticate them. The equitable power relationship thus established allows both parties to store a legally non-repudiable audit trail for critical transactions like delivery of welfare services. Biometrics exacerbates the exiting power asymmetry between citizens and state unlike digital signatures, which is peer authentication technology.

Privacy protections should be inversely proportional to power. The transparency demanded of politicians, bureaucrats and large corporations cannot be made mandatory for ordinary citizens. Surveillance must be directed at big-ticket corruption, at the top of the pyramid and not retail fraud at the bottom. Even for retail fraud, the power asymmetry will result in corruption innovating to circumvent technical safeguards. Government officials should be required by law to digitally sign the movement of resources each step of the way till it reaches a citizen. Open data initiatives should make such records available for public scrutiny. With support from civil society and the media, citizens will themselves address retail fraud. To solve corruption, the state should become more transparent to the citizen and not vice versa.

UIDAI’s latest 23-page biometrics report is supposed to dispel the home ministry’s security anxieties. It says “biometric data is collected by software provided by the UIDAI, which immediately encrypts and applies a digital signature.” Surely, what works for UIDAI, that is digital signatures, should work for citizens too. The report does not cover even the most basic attack — for example, the registrar could pretend that UIDAI software is faulty and harvest biometrics again using a parallel set-up. If biometrics are infallible, as the report proclaims, then sections in the draft UID Bill that criminalise attempts to defraud the system should be deleted.

The compromise between UIDAI and the home ministry appears to be a turf battle for states where security concerns trump developmental aspirations. This compromise does nothing to address the issues raised by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Yashwant Sinha.

Read the original published in the Business Standard on 1 February 2012

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