India’s biometric ID scans make sci-fi a reality

by Prasad Krishna last modified Mar 28, 2017 02:45 AM
I have been thinking about my fingerprints and the secrets that may lie within my eyes — and whether I want to share them with the Indian government. I may not however have a choice.

The article by Amy Kazmin was published in the Financial Times on March 27, 2017. Sunil Abraham was quoted.


India has the world’s largest domestic biometric identification system, known as Aadhaar. Since 2010, the government has collected fingerprints and iris scans from more than 1bn residents, and each has been assigned a 12-digit identification number.

The scheme is championed by Nandan Nilekani, the billionaire co-founder of IT company Infosys. It was initially conceived to ensure poor Indians received subsidised food entitlements and other welfare benefits that were previously siphoned off by unscrupulous intermediaries. It was also seen as offering poor Indians, many of whom lack birth certificates, with a portable ID that can be used anywhere in the country.

Until now, obtaining an Aadhaar number was voluntary, though most Indians enrolled without hesitation as they see its potential benefits. But New Delhi is now enlisting Aadhaar, which means “foundation” or “base” in Hindi, in more than just welfare schemes. This would mean sharing one’s biometric details isn’t really optional any more despite a Supreme Court ruling that it should be “purely voluntary”.

Last week, the government issued a rule requiring an Aadhaar number for filing tax returns, ostensibly to improve tax compliance. It has also decided that all cell phone numbers must be linked to an Aadhaar number by 2018. Even Indian Railways has plans to demand Aadhaar from those booking train tickets online.

What was once touted as an initiative to improve delivery of welfare suddenly now seems like the foundation of a surveillance state — and I admit the prospect of putting my own biometrics in the database leaves me uneasy.

As a US citizen, I’ve never had to give my biometric data to my government. Domestically, fingerprints are only taken from criminal suspects, or applicants for government jobs, though I know foreign citizens are fingerprinted on arrival.

To me, the idea of sharing eye scans evokes the dystopian Hollywood film, Minority Report, which depicts a near future in which optical-recognition cameras allow the authorities to identify anyone in any public place. The hero on the run, played by Tom Cruise, has an illegal eye transplant to avoid detection.

In recent days, many Indian academics and activists have raised concerns about Aadhaar data security, the lack of privacy rules and the absence of any accountability structure if data are misused.

"Biometrics is being weaponised," says Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society. "What you need to be worried about is that someone will clean out your bank account or frame you in a crime," he says.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, director of the Centre for Policy Research, has written of the “conversion of Aadhaar from a tool of citizen empowerment to a tool of state surveillance and citizen vulnerability”.

I call Mr Nilekani, of whose honourable intentions I have no doubt. After leaving Infosys in 2009, he spent five years in government, working to get Aadhaar off the ground. He says he is “extremely offended” when his project is accused of being part of a surveillance society, a narrative he says is “completely misrepresenting” the project. “I can steal your fingerprint off your glass. I don’t need this fancy technology,” he says. “Surveillance is far better done by following my phone, or when I use a map to order a taxi: the map knows where I am. Our internet companies know where you are.”

But in a society known for ingenious means of bypassing rules, such as having multiple taxpayer ID cards to aid evasion, Mr Nilekani says biometric authentication of individuals can bring discipline and reduce cheating. “It’s like you are creating a rule-based society,” he says, “it’s the transition that is going on right now.” I hang up, hardly reassured. To me, it seems clear that in India, as in so many places these days, Big Brother is increasingly watching.

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