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Crisis for identity or identity crisis?
By Sushant Sharma



The hurry with which the government is pushing its most ambitious project to assign a number (UID) to every citizen without any feasibility study or public debate has raised many questions.


Indians have doubts about use and abuse of UID

“It will empower all”, declared Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he issued the first UID card to a villager from Tembhli village in Maharashtra. But as days pass and relevant issues come for public discourse, many people have begun to doubt prime minister’s assurance.

Unique identification number (UID), named Aadhaar is a 12 digit identification number that the government plans to issue to all citizens that will not only be an identity card but will also serve multiple purposes for its holder.

Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani has been assigned the responsibility to execute this proposal as Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Mr Nilekani leads a team of 120 people having the task of assigning unique identities to 1.2 billion people. He plans to take Aadhaar beyond being just a 12-digit identification number for every Indian. This ambitious and mammoth project is pitched to handle projects as diverse as a national-highway toll-collection system, a technology backbone for the forthcoming Goods and Services Tax (GST) and reform of the vast public distribution system (PDS) for subsidized foodgrains.

Government plans to cover 60 per cent of the nation’s population under this project in the next three years starting October this year. This project is intended to collect identification data about all residents in the country. It is said that it will impact the PDS and NREGA programmes, and plug leakages and save the government large sums of money.

But the UID will not replace ration cards and passports, and is not mandatory as of now. No questions would be asked related to language, caste or religion of the person applying for UID.

The UID number is linked to the fingerprints and the pattern of the eyes of the person assigned that number. This inimitable biometric data ensures that any given number is linked to only one person. So there is hardly a chance of any misgiving or stealing of rations and wages from the holder. It is believed that soon banks, insurance companies, cell phone providers and hospitals will demand UID number before doing business with you.

Critics say that there has been no feasible study conducted about UID project, neither has there been a cost benefit analysis done. To add to it, there are serious concerns about data and identity theft.

In short, in the future our name, address, bank account numbers, personal information and identity as a whole will be solely linked and governed by those 12 digit number we hold.

But apart from the buzz about this new project, there is an air of suspicion surrounding it too.

The launch of the UID has led to a flurry of debate amongst policy-makers, legal experts and civil society at large. In response, Mr Nilekani claims the UID to be “a foolproof project implemented at a low cost”.

However, some critical issues remain unanswered.

One of the major objections about UID is that there has been no feasible study conducted, neither has there been a cost benefit analysis done. There is no project document as such.

To add to it, there are serious concerns about data and identity theft.

In a world where cyber terrorism is the new threat, and the countries are gearing themselves to protect against such a threat, projects like UID come as an open invitation to terrorist outfits to infiltrate their defences.

The UID number is linked to fingerprints and the patterns of the holder’s eye. But medical studies show that our eye's iris patterns can change due to aging, disease or malnourishment. More over the government has no alternative option for many millions who fall outside this pattern of identification owing to callused hands, corneal scars and cataract induced by malnourishment. Even as enrollment is poised to begin, authentication is still an unstudied field. Fake fingerprints can very easily be made. Hence, the unique element of these numbers can be tampered.

Recently, Sunil Abraham, Director, Centre for Internet and Society has remarked, “If I leave my fingerprints around, my identity can be stolen and transactions done on my behalf. They could use that number, to share information about anybody.”

A cyber-criminal having access to any person’s identification number can virtually control that person. Telephone numbers, addresses, family history can all be tracked down. Bank accounts can be manipulated and transactions done without the person knowing. Since these days, a lot of money transactions are done through internet, a cyber criminal can easily steal few UID numbers and impersonate those persons to manipulate the bank or credit card accounts.

In an even uglier scenario, where people might be tracked and judged by their numbers, a criminal’s fingerprints left behind on a scene of crime can be mixed with some one else through a slight manipulation and exchange of UID numbers, making an entirely innocent person a suspect in the eyes of law. Some incompetent or revengeful government officials can also frame innocents for a crime one never committed.

Human rights activists claim that a tech-savvy person can hack into the system and gain any person’s information from the servers unless the government tightens the defenses. A reminiscence of the Bruce Willis starrer Hollywood blockbuster Die Hard 4, a bunch of techno geeks operating from trailer truck hold the entire United States hostage as they hack into every main frame computing network from transportation, communication, power, defence and individual accounts.

The number can also be used for real time tracking, profiling, mounting surveillance and ‘convergence’ of information. Apart from the concerns about identity theft, the number can also invade our private space. If in the future insurance companies and hospitals merge their databases, the insurance companies can increase premium, or simply refuse insurance cover to a person who is not keeping well.

Poor labourers and immigrants who are on the move in search of work could also be the victims of the ‘Aadhaar’. In future, in case of card being lost or misplaced, poor labour would be threatened with financial and welfare exclusion. Where being a legal resident is to be closely tied in with having a UID number, it could render the poor vulnerable to exclusion and expulsion by exploitative employers and others.

Interestingly, few months back in June, UK government scrapped the plans for the controversial 5 billion pounds National Identity Card scheme. The UK government now plans to destroy all information held on the National Identity Register, effectively dismantling the whole system.

Though Mr Nilekani claims that UID would be a cost effective project, however deeper analysis throws a different story. It is reported that the UIDAI project will cost Rs 45,000 crores to the exchequer in the next 4 years. This does not seem to include the costs that will be incurred by Registrars, Enrollers, additional costs on the PDS system to connect it to the UID, the estimated cost to the end user and to the number holder.

Defending himself from the flurry of queries, Mr Nilekani has stressed that the identification number is not mandatory for everyone and only those interested can enroll. The project aims to first enroll the poor and uneducated masses promising them better wages and ration schemes. As was reported, the first villager to get the UID card was ‘happy but did not know its benefits’. Critics allege that the reason why Aadhaar is selling itself to millions of poor in the country is to create a foundation of legitimacy to deflect concerns over its possible misuse, unsafe technology and huge costs. Later, with a larger foundation, the UID can be enforced upon all citizens in the near future as the apex identity proof, making everyone vulnerable to several risks described above.

The UIDAI project has proceeded so far without any legal authorization. There has been no feasibility study or cost-benefit analysis preceding the setting up of such a pervasive project. All calculations are of the back-of-the envelope variety. Data theft is a very serious threat to every individual and the country as a whole. There are deeply disconcerting facts about the project that should make even a die-hard UID supporter worry about its long term implications.

Interestingly, few months back in June, UK government scrapped the plans for the controversial 5 billion pounds National Identity Card scheme. The decision came after about 15,000 citizens had already been enrolled and given their numbers. The UK government now plans to destroy all information held on the National Identity Register, effectively dismantling the whole system.

The UK system like the Indian UID had also started with much fanfare, claiming to save nearly 900 million pounds for the taxpayers. While the project was axed, UK’s Home Secretary Theresa May stated - “It (the identity card project) is intrusive and bullying, ineffective and expensive. It is an assault on individual liberty that does not promise a great good.”

The same logic implies to the India as well. But instead of scraping this over-hyped-failure-in-the-making project, our Prime Minister claims the UID project “will empower all”. But will it actually? That is for us to decide now.

Sushant Sharma  |  sushant91@gmail.com

Sushant Sharma is a college fresher and an avid reader.

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The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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