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Biometrics or bust? India's Identity Crisis

by Prasad Krishna last modified Jul 01, 2013 09:49 AM
Malavika Jayaram is speaking at an event organized by the Oxford Internet Institute on July 2, 2013. The talk will be held at Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, 1 St Giles Oxford OX1 3JS.

This info was published on the Oxford Internet Institute website.


India's mammoth biometric ID project, which has registered around 270 million people and is yet to be fully realized, is already the worldís largest such endeavor. It is marketed as a potential game-changer both domestically (where it is touted as a silver bullet to solve most problems) and internationally (where countries wait and watch this experiment before importing it into their own jurisdictions). Alongside all the hype about the scale of the scheme, its potential for transforming the delivery of services and the scope for private participation in traditionally state-controlled functions, there are fears of function creep, of subversion to create new types of fraud and corruption, of increased profiling and targeting, and of a citizenry becoming transparent to its government in an unprecedented way, all in the name of ambiguous benefits and the rhetoric of inclusion.

The government praises the ease and efficiency of centralized databases, the promise of technology (including the myth of biometrics uniquely and unambiguously identifying people in a foolproof way) and the construction of the identified self. However, there is growing awareness of the dangers of joined-up databases resulting in exclusion rather than inclusion, and persecution rather than democratization.

The scheme is technically voluntary, but with the provision of benefits, goods and services being increasingly linked to the scheme, it will soon become impossible to function in India without a biometric ID. If every facet of everyday life is linked to this single number, it renders all claims of voluntariness meaningless. The lack of information self-determination in a biometrically mediated universe has important ramifications for anonymity, free speech and the maintenance of an essential private sphere.

In this talk, Malavika will provide an overview of the scheme as well as the debate around privacy and autonomy that it has triggered, framed against the backdrop of a larger civil liberties crisis. She will also describe Indiaís efforts to craft new privacy and data protection legislation.

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