‘Difficult to believe Aadhaar was so ill thought out’

From the start there were serious concerns that we knew so little about the project: we were just instructed to give our personal information, to a database through a multitude of outsourced enrollers

NH photo by Pramod Pushkarna
NH photo by Pramod Pushkarna

Usha Ramanathan

It is a little difficult to believe that the UID project was so ill thought out. From the start there were serious concerns that we knew so little about the project: we were just instructed to give our personal information, including our fingerprints and iris scans, to a database through a multitude of outsourced enrollers.  It was said that all other IDs are full of errors, and that this project would provide a fault-free ID. It was asserted that large numbers of those experiencing poverty find themselves unable to access services from the state because they do not have an ID. Biometrics was to ensure uniqueness of each individual. The UID would not be a card, unlike other IDs, but a number attached to a biometric, making it in unimpeachable. All of this has proven untrue.

The first Strategy Overview document, in 2010, indicated the direction the project would take. `Enrolment will not be mandated’, it said, and quickly followed up that up with: `This will not, however, preclude  governments or Registrars from mandating enrolment.’ Then, the UIDAI spent a lot of time and effort wheedling different agencies, from the Reserve Bank to courts to the Ministry of Petroleum and Gas, to compel their clients to enrol and give their numbers to their data bases. Voluntary quickly gave place to mandatory. “The UID will only guarantee identity, not rights, benefits or entitlements”, the document admitted. Except, it very soon became obvious that it was not even an identity.

Why? Because, from the beginning, it was known that they did not know whether biometrics would work.  In 2010, an invitation to a biometrics consultant admitted that “there is a lack of a sound study that documents the accuracy achievable on Indian demographics (i.e., larger percentage of rural population) and in Indian environmental conditions (i.e., extremely hot and humid climates and facilities without air-conditioning). In fact we could not find any credible study assessing the achievable accuracy in any of the developing countries.” So, even without evidence that biometrics could work in India, it was decided to derive uniqueness, and achieve authentication, through biometrics.

In 2015, the UIDAI finally said on their website that they were setting up a UBCC – UIDAI Biometric Centre of Competence – and its Mission was “To design biometrics system that enables India to achieve uniqueness in the national registry. The endeavour of designing such a system is an ongoing quest to innovate biometrics technology appropriate for the Indian conditions.” Why was that a concern? Because, “Nature and diversity of India’s working population adds another challenge to achieving uniqueness through biometrics features.”  That is, biometrics was a recognised `challenge’. No wonder the failure rates have been so high.

This has also meant that the UID is not a reliable ID. The UID is, as they have been saying from the start, a number attached to a biometric. If biometrics do not work for anyone, the system does not accept that they are who they say they are. That has, time and again, resulted in denial of entitlements, including food and pension and work. Mr Pandey, the CEO Of the UIDAI, said in court that where authentication fails they have local authorities to ensure that does not prevent people from getting their entitlements. He did not deny that authentication fails, making the UID an unreliable ID. And because biometric failure can be for a range of reasons – the fingerprints were not captured properly, wounds or calluses on the fingers, machines don’t work, cataract changes the iris, too much exposure to the sun affects the iris, and many untold reasons that have not even been explored yet – the ID is, at best uncertain.

That is why the mobile number has become so central to the project. In the beginning, the mobile number was not even part of the demographic information collected. Then it became `optional’. Soon, though, it became the default identifier when authentication failed. It seems the linking the sim card with the UID data base has little to do with terrorism and a lot to do with needing the mobile number for authentication, and for the business that are intended to be built on the combination of the mobile phone and the UID number; think cashless, and the business around the movement of money.

What are the projects internal ambitions? A May 2010 document titled ‘A UID Numbering Scheme’ says it simply: it is to number the whole population. The project then proceeded to get everyone’s number seeded in all manner of data bases. Then the ID dropped all pretence of being about who is a citizen, or even a resident, and openly admitted that it is about knowing the customer – the ‘C’ in the eKYC does not stand for citizen but for ‘customer’.

This project is ridden with conflict of interest. For instance, Mr Nilekani was the first Chairperson of the UIDAI. He has been advising the National Payments Corporation of India since his time with the UIDAI, and became honorary consultant after he stepped down. Mapping of the UID number with the bank account number was evangelised to the NPCI. The Airtel fiasco, where account holders did not even know that their subsidies were being deposited in an account that they did not even know they had, reflected one set of consequences.

The project has been propped up by illegalities, violation of court orders, untruths, a governmental claim that the people of this country do not have a right to privacy, and the perversion of parliamentary process. People are being made to leave their biometrics everywhere, personal information has been linked with the UID number and the data bases are leaking all over the place, authentication is failing, the UIDAI doesn’t even have the source code for the biometric data base which is actually with companies that work closely with foreign intelligence and security establishments like the CIA and Homeland Security, new forms of fraud and corruption have come in with the UID – in the PDS, in money transfers, in enrolment which resulted in 49,000 enrollers being blacklisted. There are areas of conflict of interest that beg to be investigated.

Even after the decision of the court, there will be a lot of work left to be done because of the hurried harm that the project has created in the haste to create a fait accompli.

(Usha Ramanathan works on the jurisprudence of law, poverty and rights)

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