What's the 'Aadhaar' of the UID Scheme?

Gopal Krishna

The national identity card scheme represents the worst of government. It is intrusive and bullying. It is ineffective and expensive. It is an assault on individual liberty that does not promise a great good…” – Theresa May (British Home Secretary) announcing the complete dismantling of the UID project in the UK in June 2010.
The UPA’s National Identification Authority of India Bill has been approved by the Union Cabinet, and subsequently the UPA has already launched its much-touted and ambitious Unique Identification (UID) project, called Aadhaar, in some parts of the country. It is to be noted that this massive project, which has tremendous repercussions for democracy in India, is being introduced without even a formal clearance by the Indian parliament, let alone a broad-based, country-wide discussion on its implications. It is also ironical that the UPA is promoting the UID project in India at a time when several countries in the world (including the USA, the UK, Australia, China, Canada and Germany) have scrapped similar projects. As the powers-that-be try to convince us of the ‘advantages’ of the UID project, let us consider the claims. 
‘Better Delivery of Social Sector Schemes’?
According to the UPA Government, the UID will enable ‘inclusive growth’ and help the poor to better access social services by providing each citizen with a verifiable identity. The UID, we're told, will ‘facilitate delivery of basic services’, and ‘plug leakages’ in public expenditure.
This claim is highly exaggerated: after all, exclusion from social sector schemes are rarely caused by the inability to prove identity – they are, in the main, caused by the deliberate exclusion of the poor from these services and by deliberate corruption by those entrusted to run these schemes. When BPL families are unable to make use of their valid ration cards, when workers are not paid the legally mandated minimum wages, or when women workers in NREGA schemes are denied work or paid less than their due, the reason is not their lack of ability to prove their identity.
In fact, the introduction of UID is likely to go hand in hand with dismantling of the entire PDS mechanism (whereby the Government is responsible for delivery of guaranteed entitlements of food and fuel) in favour of 'smart cards' and 'cash transfers', under which the poor are likely to face even greater deprivation and exclusion.  
Foolproof Identification?
The UID scheme is being peddled as a system of foolproof biometric identification (i.e identification through fingerprints and iris scans as well as photographs.)
But this technology is neither highly accurate nor suitable for large scale use on a population of India's size. Research commissioned by the CIA and US Security establishment in September 2010 had concluded that the current state of biometrics is "inherently fallible" and liable to develop major problems if used on a large scale. The poorest Indians, most of them engaged in hard manual labour have what is in technical terms called "low quality" fingerprints rather than well-defined ones. This same section of people are also highly prone to malnutrition-induced cataract, and corneal injury too is very common, making iris scans quite unreliable as a form of identification. In case their 'fingerprint' or 'iris scan' fails to match at a later date, how will they prove their identity? Is this unreliable form of identification not, therefore, likely to create uncertainty and exclusion for the very section in whose name it is being introduced? 

What are CIA-backed US Corporations doing on the UID Project?

Is the UID project a government project? If so, why has it entered into contracts with a range of private players and corporations, including those with close links with US intelligence agencies?
Take the instance of two US companies which have been hired for "Implementation of Biometric Solution for UIDAI." One of them is L1 Identity Solutions (whose main market, and recruitment ground, is the Central Intelligence Agency). Their website reads: "American and foreign military services, defense and intelligence agencies rely on L-1 solutions and services to help determine ally from enemy". Another US company is Accenture (which is working with US Homeland Security in their Smart Borders Project). This company is "committed to helping the (US) Department of Homeland Security" and its "solutions include developing prevention tactics, streamlining intelligence gathering and maximizing new technologies."
Why are companies closely linked to the CIA and US intelligence being given access to sensitive databases about Indian citizens? Is it for their expertise? The National Corruption Index, a website dedicated to exposing corruption in the US, has profiles on both Accenture and L-1, linking them to corruption. It states that Accenture was given a contract for a hi-tech screening system around US borders using fingerprint readers, optical scans and facial recognition software, but from the inception, the project was "plagued with breakdowns, mistakes and security breaches" and "has repeatedly failed to work."
The same website tells us that the L-1 CEO is "one of the main privatized gatekeepers of America's borders." The company has a former CIA director on its board, and specialises in identification technology. But in October 2007 a fraud unit found that its scanners "routinely declared counterfeit IDs to be valid." Can these US companies with their track record of failed projects, be trusted to keep India safe? Obviously not. But they are being entrusted with sensitive personal data about every Indian citizen! What guarantee is there that this information will not be leaked to the global market or expose Indian citizens to intrusive surveillance not only by the Indian State but even by organisations like the CIA?

‘Voluntary Participation’?
The UPA Government has stressed that the UID would be a voluntary scheme. Nandan Nilekani, the former Infosys CEO heading the Aadhaar Project however spilled the beans when he said, "Yes, it is voluntary. But the service providers might make it mandatory. In the long run, I wouldn't call it compulsory. I would rather say that it will become ubiquitous." In other words, people will effectively have no choice but to register under the scheme because social welfare schemes and agencies like banks, insurance providers will insist on UID numbers. The upcoming legislation on the UID does not even bother to speak the language of democracy – according to the provisions of the proposed bill, one can be penalized for not updating the information provided to the UID project.
Steep Costs
The current costs are estimated at whopping Rs.45,000 crores, and this is probably a gross underestimate. Operationalising the UID scheme on the ground for NREGA and the public distribution system would require placing fingerprint readers at every panchayat office and every ration shop. The total costs of placing fingerprint readers in each PDS outlet and in each of India’s 600,000 villages have not been taken into account in official cost calculations.
Consequences for Privacy
The NIAI Bill and UID project cannot be seen in isolation from a host of other Bills and projects relating, among other things, to privacy, DNA Profiling, Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations (PIII) for a National Knowledge Network and the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID). Joining the dots of all these various proposals, the picture that emerges is an ominous one of surveillance and tracking of Indian citizens to serve corporate and imperialist interests, economic as well as political. 

Chidambaram's Man Suggests "Corporate Territorial Armies"

Mahindra Special Services Group CEO Captain Raghu Raman who heads NATGRID, a pet project of Chidambaram's Home Ministry to integrate intelligence databases, has prepared a report in which he makes the audacious suggestion that "it's time for the corporates to step in" to the arena of security. In favour of this idea, he cites the precedence for private security contractors in the Israel, the US and other countries. He proposes that corporates be allowed to raise their own "private territorial armies." He concludes that "If the commercial czars don't begin protecting their empires now, they may find the lines of control cutting across those very empires."
Let us remind ourselves that this is no corporate crank speaking. A man who advocates private armies for corporates has been entrusted by the Home Ministry to head a crucial national intelligence project, while companies who are "privatised gatekeepers" in the US have been given contracts for implementation of the UID project. What does it add up to?

On UID, the Draft Paper on Privacy Bill states, “Data privacy and the need to protect personal information is almost never a concern when data is stored in a decentralized manner. However, all this is likely to change with the implementation of the UID Project. One of the inevitable consequences of the UID Project will be that the UID Number will unify multiple databases. As more and more agencies of the government sign on to the UID Project, the UID Number will become the common thread that links all those databases together. Over time, private enterprise could also adopt the UID Number as an identifier for the purposes of the delivery of their services or even for enrolment as a customer...Once this happens, the separation of data that currently exists between multiple databases will vanish.” This poses a threat to the identity of citizens and the idea of residents of the state as private persons will be forever abandoned. The potential for the UID data to be leaked to market forces as well as for intrusions by the state into citizens' privacy becomes enormous. Seen in conjunction with the involvement in the UID project of US corporations close to the CIA (see box) and with potentially intrusive Home Ministry initiatives like NATGRID which aim to integrate 21 databases to feed information to 11 security and intelligence agencies including RAW and IB, serious concerns about the expansion of the web of surveillance arise.     

The revolving door phenomenon – where corporate honchos dictate, guide and execute public policy – is very much visible in the UID project too and this explains their unadulterated enthusiasm for this project. Clearly, the UID project will open the doors to an unprecedented access of our personal and financial information to the corporate world; paving the way for misuse and manipulation of such information. The UID scheme is a blatant attempt to convert a resident into a number, the Indian population into a global market and then citizens into subjects.