Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Finger Prints, Iris-Scans, and a Sense of Belonging

-- By NatashaBronn - 31 May 2012


In 2009, the Government of India, through the Unique Identification Authority of India, initiated the AADHAR program, designed to collect biometric identification information from all 1.2 billion citizens. The program aims to document all of the country's residents, a third of whom currently have no form of identification, and to issue unique 12-digit identification numbers to each registrant which would replace all other forms of identification in India. While the program is not mandatory, many government services are now tied to possession of an AADHAR number, thus citizens will essentially be required to register or forego government services if they do not. The program promises to streamline many public services in India which currently require separate registration cards for each service, and to finally account for millions of Indians who formerly went unnoticed by the state and who therefore failed to receive welfare and other benefits because of their lack of identification.

The program has lofty public goals as well, often referred to as the biggest social project on the planet, it has been marketed as a way to provide identity to the lower classes who can now be proud to carry an ID card. Some have said that it offers the card bearers a sense of belonging. The program has also been lauded as a new form of inclusive growth and a way to shift economic power in India by making a third of the country newly accountable to both receive public services, and eventually then to act as consumers themselves. Due to poverty levels and administrative difficulty in documenting its citizens, currently only 3% of Indian citizens pay any income tax. Further, the AADHAR program is also meant to reduce fraud in India, by requiring people to scan their finger prints to match those listed in the data base each time they collect government ratios or vote.

With these noble objectives in mind, AADHAR appears to be a boon to the population of India; a gift of sorts from the Indian government to its undocumented population. I recently spent time in India and spoke with a number of young professionals about the AADHAR program. Their impressions of the program were overwhelming positive and they viewed it as a program designed for the lowest classes in India and as a way to help create a collective sense of pride in being card-carrying citizens. Interestingly, although they themselves will be required to register with AADHAR and their personally identifiable and bio-metric data will also be kept on file, many of the young professionals appeared to believe that the program was not really designed to collect information about the working upper-middle classes and was only for the poor and unemployed. Although none of the people I spoke with mentioned any concerns about the program, beneath the surface, and the perhaps collective sense that the program is nothing more than a welfare tool for the poor, there are deep misgivings that a database of the finger prints and iris scans of 1.2 billion people is a potential privacy violation and a risky precedent to set for the rest of the world in the realm of data mining and surveillance.

Public Service: Private Support

The ADDHAR project is the brain child of Nandan Nilekani, former CEO of billion dollar company Infosys Technologies. Despite his corporate ties, Nilekani insists that the AADHAR project is only intended for use by the Indian government, however, the system is in fact intricately tied to the private sector. For example, AADHAR receives biometric support from C-1 Identity Solutions, an American-run intelligence and surveillance company. While it is unclear precisely under what terms of use the privately run supporting companies operate, and what access they have to the biometric data, the potential consequences are unsettling. For example, though the Government of India hopes that the AADHAR project will be a success, there are concerns that the project is too large an undertaking and will have to be abandoned. To date, however, biometric information has been gathered from over 200-million citizens. If this data is not in use by the government, the potential exploitations in the commercial world are endless for marketing by understanding age and occupational demographics. Further, even if the information is not used by any of the private partners, concerns exist that the government may not invest the resources needed to adequately secure the data that has already been gathered, and this mass of bio-metric information could lead to identity fraud or other large scale surveillance concerns. For example, if this is compared with the United State's own current version of consolidated identifying information - the Social Security Number-the risks if the AADHAR numbers are left unsecured are all too apparent. While Social Security numbers are meant to be kept confidential by the government, due to the frequency with which citizens must provide the number to various other companies and administrative services, makes them incredibly vulnerable to theft. If a Social Security number is stolen, the unfortunate holder of the number may have credit cards or loans falsely taken out in his name, but the implications for a stolen AADHAR number which contains even more sensitive information and is tied to essential services could be even more severe.

What does AADHAR Really Stand For?

Despite the privacy concerns, and worries that the project is simply too big of an undertaking given the population of India, it certainly appears that, at the very least, the AADHAR project will gather at least twice the number of registrations as it currently has. At best, the AADHAR program will finally put 1/3rd of India's population on the "map," and allow them to be counted in the state census and gather welfare benefits. At worst, the program may put the personal information of millions of people at risk, including, for the first time in history, vast data bases of bio-metric data. Further, while it is likely a boon to most of the population to finally be accounted for by the state, the AADHAR project reduces the option to be invisible to the state if one should choose. This raises interesting questions about the implications of loosing the option in modern societies to be "off the radar" or simply unaccounted for by the state. Further, it raises the interesting question of if people should have the right to simply disappear, and what "disappearing" can even mean in the digital and surveillance era. As AADHAR continues to grow, it will be fascinating to witness the implications for both the self-identity of the poor in India as well as the data mining implications for all citizens. Finally, once it is an option for everyone to be accounted, will the desire and belief in the goodness of accountability remain the same?

This is really two essays, jammed together. AADHAR is a fascinating, complex story still unfolding. I had a two-hour private meeting with Nilekani just before he began the project; he has been in touch several times with my Director of International Practice at SFLC, Mishi Choudhary, who also runs She has provided some legal advice to AADHAR. Everything you say about it, plus and minus, I think is accurate. And still, after two years, and all the facts and circumstances you present, it is still impossible, even as close to it as we are, to know whether it will turn out to be mostly good or mostly evil in the end. Whatever it turns out to do, however, it will have changed India.

The idea of a US AADHAR, however, is but a chimera, joining this to the other essay, which is about a very different US situation, and about Facebook. Here we have already a universal database key, called the Social Security Number. Because it is confidential only "in principle," and because government never helped us to maintain its privacy, it functions as one among many traces that allow what a White House official recently said to me in a private conversation: "we need to have a robust social graph of the United States." The US will soon be a society in which the government keeps lists of everyone every American knows. Linked to that graph will be all the financial records, transaction data, travel data, telecomms data, etc. coursing through the commercial system all the time. India could never accomplish that task with the available technology and workforce. A generation from now it will be able to do so. By then, the US and urban China will be fully instrumented societies, where predictive modeling applied to comprehensive data collection will be renovating the very idea of human independence.

Your writing about Facebook is tender, almost. Perhaps by now you too have begun to grasp its vulnerability: once young people begin to flee, for any number of reasons including just plain uncoolness, it can unravel. But social networking will never go away: it's part of what happens when we give humanity an external nervous system. Whether people in my Free World will create technologies that oust the surveillance system from the network of human social sharing, or whether the network continues to accumulate most of everybody's sharing in order to fuel its predictive models of people's behavior, is the most important political question of the next fifty years.

I think the way forward here is to decide which of the essays you want to complete. Space taken at the other's expense will then allow you to go further from the facts you lay out to the idea that animates your concern.

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r5 - 11 Jan 2013 - 21:48:55 - IanSullivan
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