Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Aadhaar Card and our "Identity" crisis

Archana works for an organization that has recently introduced a new device to track employee attendance. At the time of entry and exit, members of the staff press their fingers against a biometric sensor installed in the office. The sensor matches the fingerprints with those in its database, identifies the employee and marks them present. But there is a problem. Female employees have learnt the hard way that on days when they have mehendi on their fingers – a very common occurrence in India, especially during festivals and family events like weddings – the sensor fails to recognize the employee, marking them absent.

Professor Chari is a retired professor who spends his time doing research and freelance journalism. He is a regular visitor at the local Public Library, which has a large collection of rare books that help him in his research. The University has recently ‘upgraded’ its systems, and introduced a biometric reader that scans the borrower’s fingerprints when membership is granted. However, there is a problem. The biometric reader fails to ‘read’ the Professor’s fingerprints, making it impossible for him to enrol. The Librarian says this is a very common occurrence with senior citizens, for which he has no solution.

These two incidents (names changed, stories true) that I came across recently drove me to attend an event organized by Moneylife Foundation earlier this year, on the recently introduced “Aadhaar” card by the Government of India. The event was addressed by Col (retd.) Mathew Thomas, a former missile scientist cum civic activist, and Mr. Jude D’Souza, a forensic expert. At the event, Mr. D’souza gave a demonstration of how fingerprints can be faked, and claimed even Iris scans can be easily tampered with. Col Thomas, in his speech, came down heavily on the Aadhaar project and explained how the project is being pushed ahead despite its lack of Parliamentary sanction, extraordinary high cost and innumerable flaws in conception, execution and  implementation

Since then, I have tracked the Aadhaar project closely. The critics of Aadhaar are many, and its flaws are there for all to see - the project has no Parliamentary sanction, its cost benefit analysis has not been done, it uses questionable methods to collect its data, the accountability for breach of data secrecy is vague and unidentified, the card itself is unnecessary and adds no value, and it exposes citizens to a grave risk of identity theft. (Read thisthis or this) The card is being mischievously linked to government schemes like subsidy payments, for which simpler solutions such as Electronic Transfers (e.g. RBI's ECS) already exist. It's marketing campaign makes the deceptive claim of being “every citizen’s right”, creating a perception of value and benefit. One can understand a right to vote, a right to free speech, or even a right to subsidies and scholarships (if eligible). But a "right" to an identity card is a laughable statement! And yet, the citizen’s have lapped up the card, as if there was no tomorrow (around 38 crore enrolled at the time of writing!). I am amazed at this craving for another “identity” proof, without giving a second thought to what constitutes an "identity", and why identity cards exist. So let us ponder over it...

Aadhaar - A "right" to get a card that tells you who you are!

My dictionary defines Identity as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is”. A person’s name and face, appearance and physical features give him his identity. His character, reputation, image give him his identity. His achievements, his work, his thoughts and actions – all give him his identity. "Cogito ergo sum”, Rene Descartes famously said in the 17th Century. I think, therefore I am. That gives me my identity. People would still have their identities even if there were no identity cards.

Identity Cards exist not because people need identities, but because organizations need to identify people they want to deal with. The Election Commission issues an Identity Card, because it needs to identify voters who are authorised to vote. National governments issue passports because they need to identify people who enter and exit their country. A school or college issues an Identity card because it needs to identify students who have been granted admission. Why the UIDAI needs to identify anybody is beyond my understanding. It is probably the only organization in the world whose sole purpose is to issue Identity Cards!

Going far beyond its blatant illegality and reckless implementation, the Aadhaar project raises serious issues of citizen’s freedom, liberty and privacy that are little understood by a majority of Indians. The government exists for the sole purpose of ensuring law & order, defending the country from external aggression and providing a dispute resolution framework. People are unaware that nobody – not even the government – needs to know more about its citizens than what is necessary. For example, the Motor Vehicles Department seeks information about a person’s age, physical fitness & blood group in its ‘normal’ course of business. The Income Tax Authority does not ask for your physical fitness and blood group, but may seek information about income and assets, because that is in its normal course of functions. The Election Commission seeks information about age & residential address, but not income & assets! But the UIDAI wants to know everything about everybody, and for no specific purpose! 

It should be noted that opposition to Aadhaar is not opposition to technology. From Stone Age to this day, mankind has progressed only because of advancements in technology. The benefits of technology in areas such as bank computerization or railway reservation systems have been there for all to see. In recent times, government departments like the Income Tax or Passport Offices have computerized their operations, bringing immense improvement in the quality of their service delivery. However, Aadhaar seeks to create an integrated database that will hold everything from a person’s name and date of birth, to fingerprints and iris scans, and address to bank account numbers. It  would expose citizens to a grave risk of identity theft, and is a blatant encroachment on the citizen’s right to privacy and liberty. It would grant immense power to anybody who lays his hands on this data, and would be open to misuse (see this, esp. the last para). This includes unscrupulous employees from the related offices, data collection agencies, people with political power, and by consequence their relatives, associates, business partners or anyone else who is interested in obtaining this data for a consideration. 

The UIDAI claims the data is encrypted at the point of collection. But we know that adding a layer of encryption does little to deter a determined hacker. Everything from bank websites to email accounts, defence networks to even nuclear establishments have been hacked. No wonder UIDAI doesn’t even reveal whether the country’s top politicians own an Aadhaar Card!

To me, Aadhaar is nothing but part of a grand scheme to create a Surveillance State. Its other elements includes the Central Monitoring System (CMS), the National Population Register (NPR), the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), countless CCTVs at every nook and corner of the country, and every other instrument of state oppression that is used to track every step a citizen takes. Much of this is often justified on the grounds of 'national security' – in other words, the government’s own administrative failure of securing our borders and making the country safe. Governments exist to serve its people, not to control them. Unfortunately, schemes such as these do not face popular resistance, because a majority of the people feel they have nothing to hide. But once such an infrastructure is created, it can be misused to intimidate and subjugate people, and create a regime of oppression and injustice.

No wonder the government is desperate to give you an Aadhaar card. Why are you desperate to take it?


  1. people are already and always oppressed and were never the unjust lasted for them. It is time and phase. Aadhaar is natural candidate for intellectuals to target.
    This is highly authentic and deeply analysed valuation of the Aadhaar project.
    But there are many aspects too need to be taken in account like the time of inclusion of technology advancement in common men's life.

  2. Now digital Aadhar card or E-Aadhar card is likewise introduced by the government of India so that it will facilitate Indian citizen for more visit here

  3. A portal to help you find the aadhar enrolment centres all over India. Nowadays, Aadhar card is mandatory to be presented as a proof of identity. The Aadhar card is issued in India by UIDAI