Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Aadhaar: Digital India's Shaky Foundation

-- By RahulWadwa - 06 Mar 2015


“Digital India” is the Indian government’s attempt to smooth and enhance the rapidly developing nation’s journey through the Information Age. The initiative seeks to connect all of the country’s roughly 1.2 billion citizens to each other and to their government by creating a nationwide digital infrastructure, ensuring electronic delivery of government services, and promoting digital literacy. A top priority of the current Modi Administration, it is no doubt a massive and ambitious project.

Although an impressive number of Indians are already on the Internet (over 243 million), they hardly make up 20% of the population. Despite India having shown remarkable growth since the economic liberalization reforms of the 90s, hundreds of millions of citizens still live in poverty and in rural areas, making access to critical state welfare programs and other services difficult. Digital India’s vision of universal connectivity will give the people “secure, high-speed access for education, commerce, health, and access to the global flow of ideas and information.” To achieve its monumental goals, Digital India plans to draw on the “Aadhaar” program that has been in place since 2010.


Managed by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), this project has already assigned a randomized, unique, lifelong, and authenticable 12-digit number to over 680 million Indian residents each, making it the world’s largest biometric database. The number, commonly known as “Aadhaar”, meaning “foundation”, “base”, or “support” in Hindi, is stored in a centrally controlled database and will be used as a means of identification to digitally link every Indian to the internet. While most Indians have some form of identification (driver’s license, ration card), there are still millions with none whatsoever, rendering several crucial activities, such as opening a bank account, impossible. Aadhaar changes that.

Functioning as an “internal passport”, Aadhaar cuts through the red tape by giving participants easy and automatic access to state services. The idea is to plug the “leakage” the Indian welfare system is known for—corrupt and/or lazy bureaucrats stealing benefits and claimants taking more than their fair share—by creating a singular ID card to eliminate duplicate and fake identities that can be verified in a cost-effective manner, ensuring those entitled to state aid receive it.

If implemented properly, Digital India and its projects would improve the lives of hundreds of millions and transform the country into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy.

The problem is, however, there is absolutely no legal framework for Aadhaar, and given the Indian government’s track record, little hope that it will be implemented properly.

Not What It Seems: Privacy and Legal Concerns

While Aadhaar purports to be a mere welfare project for the public good, all signs point to something more dubious, if not downright sinister. Aadhaar could prove to be less helpful and more intrusive, violating fundamental privacy rights, leading to civil liberties abuses, and the future targeting and exploitation of certain groups.

In exchange for the Aadhaar ID card, participants are asked to give up an excessive amount of personal information. Aside from name, date of birth, and address, the scheme collects fingerprints, iris scans, and facial images. Details, such as family and bank accounts, can also be linked to the card. All this to ensure there are no leaks in the system.

And yet, enrollment centers run by private operators make it relatively easy for anyone, like an undocumented immigrant, to walk in and make a card or many. Unsurprisingly, several false Aadhaar cards have been found, including one made for a coriander (cilantro) plant. If cards can be made easily and with little verification, are the government’s claims of reducing corruption and improving transparency sincere? Perhaps their objectives are sincere but the execution poor—a common reality for government projects. Still, too much is at stake to be so careless.

Although the government maintains the information is highly encrypted and will not be shared, stolen, or misused, the absence of comprehensive data protection privacy laws and a secure cyberspace in India mean such claims cannot be relied upon. Already there have been media reports of personal data lying around in cupboards in a Mumbai suburb, being sold on the street, or large amounts (300,000 applications) being lost entirely while being uploaded to a central server.

Eventually, the government does not even plan to own this data. Once stable, 51% will go to private companies (National Information Utilities)—some with strong ties to foreign intelligence agencies. The government will be notified every time a citizen uses her card, but the citizen will not know how her information is being used. In addition, information once entered cannot be removed.

What’s worse is that people are being forced to apply. The Supreme Court may have ruled Aadhaar registration cannot be a condition for government services, but in reality, people are not given a choice. For example, one must have an Aadhaar card in order to obtain a passport. In Delhi, food-subsidy ration cards were being handed out to Aadhaar members only.

The efforts to increase the efficiency of welfare service delivery are commendable and understandable, given the immense pressures a country the size of India imposes on the system. However, retired High Court judge Justice Puttaswamy insists that the way “the government has gone about implementing this project is odd and illegal.”

One wonders about the true motives of the government when it went ahead and implemented the project through executive order despite the idea being rejected by Parliament in the first place. There was not even an attempt to modify the bill for approval. This also raises questions of constitutional validity. Then one wonders what the public does not know about the program that inspired the formerly harsh Aadhaar critic, the BJP party, to suddenly forget its campaign promise to scrap the program and, now in power, order it to be fast-tracked.

The motives for the program may in fact be genuine. However, until proper legal safeguards are in place, the potential for abuse is high.

What is the essay's point? The UID is. I met with Nandan Nilekani before the project began; my law partner, Mishi Choudhary---also the executive director of in regular touch with him while he was still in government. We work with the Modi government closely now. I don't think any of your information is inaccurate, and for someone who is not involved in the issues, your basic account is mostly useful. (The statement that the UID is a portal to the Internet is misleading. Justice Puttaswamy comes out of nowhere, and his extrajudicial opinions are merely that, etc.) But when it comes time for the essay to express an idea, the only one on offer is vague non-specific worry that might as well be attached to any other national identification scheme in the world. Something that no effective networked society can be without, and for which no perfect set of arrangements optimizing all trade-offs in all directions can exist might be a problem? Surely, from all the thoroughness of preparation, something more by way of your own idea can be produced.


Webs Webs

r4 - 26 Jun 2015 - 20:22:43 - MarkDrake
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM