Biometric collection, NPR or AADHAAR: Does anybody care?
by Rijul Singh Uppal on 27 Feb 2012 4 Comments

Welcome to 1984 - the flight landed a little late and George Orwell has departed. But nevertheless, we made it. And Big Brother Cheney ... sorry, Chidambaram, is watching. Former Supreme Court Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer had warned as recently as November 2011, while releasing a book on Aadhaar that “the project Aadhaar should not be implemented for it amounts to an assault on privacy and basic rights of individuals and is suited only for fascist nations”. But few activists either understood the danger or fell prey to the general social inertia, and the apparatus for the Orwellian Police State seems set to thrive.

The National Population Register (NPR) in general is the register of usual residents (one who has stayed in the local area for the past 6 months or one who intends to stay in the local area for the next 6 months) of the country. It is being prepared along with the National Register of Indian Citizens. It is compulsory for every citizen to be registered in the National Register of Indian Citizens, but as it is being prepared as a sub-set of the National Population Register, it makes it mandatory for every individual to register and provide biometrics for the National Population Register.

During Census 2011, like every other census till date, enumerators visited households and collected details that were generalised at best for census purposes. However this time, the powers that be insisted on adding biometric details, i.e. a photograph, all fingerprints, and iris scans of both eyes, to the NPR database by organizing local enrolment camps and also through the Nandan Nilekani led Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) Aadhaar project.

Let’s see the double-face approach of the Congress-led government and Home Minister P. Chidambaram to prowl biometric details of every resident in the country. Thus, what started as an exercise for people to voluntarily provide their biometrics has quickly become compulsory for all residents and citizens - failure to do so would result in their name being struck off the National Population Register! We must ask why?

Data collected for the National Population Register after authentication will be sent to Unique Identification Authority of India for de-duplication and issue of Aadhaar Number. Thus the register will contain three elements of data - (I) demographic data, (II) biometric data and (III) the Aadhaar Number.

It is thus obvious that though providing biometric data to the UIDAI was technically voluntary, all biometric data collected by the Home Ministry for the National Population Register will ultimately be shared with the UIDAI.

This covert method of collecting biometrics of the entire population hints at a hidden agenda. The National Identification Authority of India Bill, now rejected by the parliamentary standing committee, does not make it mandatory for an individual to enroll. However, it does not prevent any service provider from prescribing Aadhaar as a mandatory requirement for availing services. That the government could at a later stage make the card compulsory across a wide range of schemes means that Aadhaar would, de facto, become compulsory.

For instance, what would happen if banks and other financial institutions such as insurance companies make it compulsory for you to register your Aadhaar (UID) Number, in order to access your account or get medical insurance? Data that is sacrosanct will fall in the hands of establishments who have no possible legitimate use of it; nor would they have adequate data protection systems in place.

Technological advancements have made it easy to cross-reference a person’s personal data. This information, if compiled, is open to abuse [stalkers are known to do this abroad]. With super-fast servers that can quickly browse through and cross-reference files, various details of a person’s life, from chat room conversations to medical and financial records, can be compiled into a SINGLE DATABASE.

Linking an individual’s data to a UID Number will make such internet stalking of potential victims that much easier. We are sure to see a spurt in data theft and identity frauds, with devastating consequences for even modest citizens, whose bank accounts can be wiped clean and Police left groping for means of coping with this new crime arena. After all, cyber crime control is at a very nascent stage in India. The affluent are in even more danger; access to their UID Number could subject them to threats from potential kidnappers, to cite just one instance. Even worse for all citizens, a simple glitch in the database could render an individual into a non-person.

Unlike in the USA where the Privacy Act of 1974 states that “it shall be unlawful for any federal, state, and local government agency to deny to any individual any right, benefit, or privilege provided by law because of such individual’s refusal to disclose his/her social security account number”, there is no provision in the Indian law to ensure that government or private agencies cannot make it compulsory to disclose private details. After all, the attempt to link Public Distribution and other social welfare schemes to Aadhaar doesn’t leave any scope of voluntary submission of biometric data to the UIDAI.

The Unique Identification Authority of India, under Nandan Nilekani, was set up under the aegis of the Planning Commission by an executive order and NOT by an Act of Parliament. Hence it cannot be held accountable to the legislature and thereby to the people (for any future loss or illegal transmission of said data).

In all of its brochures, press statements, FAQ’s on department websites etc, the government has cited numerous laws and clauses that legitimise its intrusive moves.

Present legislation does provide for a National Population Register. But it does not allow collection of biometrics, and government has failed continuously to provide a single legal provision under which it has undertaken the collection of biometrics, which is therefore unconstitutional.

Indeed, the Parliamentary Standing Committee criticised the government for starting enrolment under the UIDAI project without parliamentary approval. It rejected the government’s position and legal justifications offered, and asserted that when constitutional rights are violated, the powers of the executive remain circumscribed by those of the legislature.

Biometric database to root out corruption from social welfare schemes?

It is now well known that due to the prevalence of high population dependant on manual labour (whose fingerprints get erased with work and age), there could be an error rate of 15%, which could translate into the exclusion of about 150-180 million people.

So if fingerprint readers, installed at Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme work sites and PDS ration shops, were to determine employment or ration purchases based upon correct authentication, about 150-180 million persons would be permanently barred access from the social welfare schemes.

Thus, as intended beneficiaries may not get the benefits of social welfare even after billions are spent on Aadhaar, the argument of using biometrics for better implementation of social welfare schemes is flawed. Yet this limitation of biometrics has not prevented the government from leaping into the dark with this project.

Prof. Abhijit Sen, member, Planning Commission, said while delivering a lecture on ‘Food Security in India’, that Aadhaar cannot fix all that ails the Public Distribution System, and other government welfare schemes. He clarified that he was speaking in a strictly personal capacity and did not represent the views of the government or the Planning Commission.

Chidambaram’s ideal: USA PATRIOT Act and George W Bush

In America, the Bush administration cited national security and the war against terror as its raison d’être for imposing the exceedingly harsh USA PATRIOT Act, which did not provide a system of checks and balances to safeguard individual liberties in the face of such a legislation, and is now being used with impunity in that country to abuse individual liberties, especially of dissidents.

Most astonishing was the lack of debate preceding its introduction. When it was introduced by the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft gave Congress one week in which to pass the bill (without any changes). Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, convinced the Justice Department to agree to some changes, and members of the House began to make significant improvements. However, the Attorney General warned that further terrorist acts were imminent, and that Congress could be to blame for such attacks if it failed to pass the bill immediately.

So America sacrificed individual liberties for concepts like national security, terrorist attacks... and passed the proposal without debate or amendment. In fact, barring one senator, no one even objected to it.

Back home, Union Home Minister Chidambaram is openly enamoured of Uncle Sam. So when all other excuses for pushing Aadhaar (brainchild of Montek-Chidambaram-Nilekani) and biometrics collection for the National Population Register were de-bunked by critics, the Government cited national security as the reason for mandatory collection of biometrics.

This was the pièce de resistance to shatter resistance to the danger to our personal liberties, the trump card which would catapult us painlessly into the stratosphere of the Police State. Terror, illegal immigration, national security, aren’t working too well for the Home Minister in the context of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (another pet project) and by proffering the same excuses for NPR (where even illegal immigrants can get themselves registered) the regime seems to have overplayed its ONLY hand.

Regarding illegal aliens, the Standing Committee rightly observed, “While the country is on one hand facing a serious problem of illegal immigrants and infiltration from across the borders, the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010, proposes to entitle every resident to obtain an Aadhaar number”.

Standing Committee disregarded by Chidambaram and Nilekani

The Standing Committee voiced concerns over the misuse of collected data after taking note of the failure of similar initiatives in other nations. It said the project was ‘hasty’ and directionless in its approach, and was flagged off without any consideration of the financial implications. The Committee also noted that the enrolment process compromises the security and confidentiality of those enrolled in the Aadhaar project. It noted that without a proper data protection law in place, it would be difficult to deal with data tampering and misuse.

Discerning citizens had hoped that after the Standing Committee’s report, the government would book its losses and scrap the project. But some unknown pressure led the Home Ministry and Planning Commission to come up with the idea of marking jurisdiction for both the UIDAI and National Population Register, and retaining both with all ill-advised features intact. Indeed, the only grievance that the Centre-Planning Commission redressed was duplication of data – data that is contentious in the first place!

Nandan Nilekani piously promised to ‘look into’ the concerns regarding data security – whatever that means, given that a firm solution is not even a pre-requisite to the functioning of UID.

Not surprisingly in this era of American-style embedded journalism, our mainstream media was satisfied with the Government’s bogus explanations and failed to question the UPA’s moves and motives. It is now up to the emerging informal grouping of regional political parties to scuttle this grave danger.

It is shocking that issues like national security and social welfare are being used by the government to divert our attention from fundamental issues of privacy and safety of citizens’ data. The government has disregarded the Parliamentary Standing Committee, so it is now up to the opposition parties to take the issue further. All MPs will have to make their stand clear on this issue (as they did when they resisted the flawed Lokpal legislation).

And where are all the NGOs who claim to be representatives of civil society? One would expect the danger to individual liberty posed by the collection and possible misuse of biometric data to figure as their primary concern. May be they will wake up to the stakes involved when they come under the RTI scanner on account of the diversity of causes for which they receive funds.

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The author is a student

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