Privacy issues hound India's Aadhaar IDs

Aadhaar - "the foundation" in Hindi - seems to have helped neither with welfare nor against corruption.

By Reetika Khera

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Published: Mon 22 Jan 2018, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 23 Jan 2018, 2:27 PM

Aadhaar, India's grand programme to provide a unique 12-digit identification number to each of its 1.3 billion residents, appears to be collapsing under its own ambitions.
When it was set up by the Congress Party-led government in 2009, it was touted as a voluntary biometric ID system that would ensure the smooth delivery of public services - notably welfare benefits and subsidised food for the poor - while limiting the risk of fraud.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, then the main opposition party, was among the project's fiercest critics at first but after it came to power, it made Aadhaar mandatory for accessing numerous public services and some private transactions.
So far, Aadhaar - "the foundation" in Hindi - seems to have helped neither with welfare nor against corruption.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of India began hearings in a long-running collective case challenging the programme's constitutionality. The petitioners argue that Aadhaar, if fully implemented, would "reduce citizens to servitude," since not having an Aadhaar number (that "electronic leash") in effect meant "civil death."
On the one hand, having an Aadhaar number does not in itself guarantee access to welfare benefits - among the least generous in the world. The need to have one and to link it to one's various accounts and benefits has prevented some Indians from obtaining state assistance.
Several Indian states require people to enlist in Aadhaar before they can claim rice or wheat at subsidised prices under the Public Distribution System, an important source of food security in the country's poorer areas. Among them is the eastern state of Jharkhand, where only about 7 per cent of residents aged 6 to 23 get an adequate diet. In September, an 11-year-old girl there died of hunger after her family was struck off the beneficiaries' registry because it had failed to link its ration card to an Aadhaar number. (The government has contested this account, claiming the girl died of malaria.) A half-dozen other Indians are reported to have died because of similar reasons.
These deaths are the starkest and most tragic example of the system's shortcomings. But many, many thousands of Indians, perhaps even millions, are at risk of losing access to food, pensions or benefits they sorely need.
To buy subsidised grain in some states, for example, a beneficiary must authenticate her identity by placing the tip of a finger on a hand-held machine. Collecting a readable fingerprint this way requires functioning electricity, an internet connection and operational servers. In large swathes of rural India, all of this is a steep ask. Yet if any one of these steps fail, applicants are denied food assistance.
In theory, biometric identification could help reduce identity fraud, but there has never been much evidence of large-scale identity fraud in India's welfare programmes.
The main problem with, say, the main food aid programme is that officials and intermediaries appear to misreport official disbursements and skim off some of the aid.
There is no evidence that Aadhaar has put a dent in corruption either.
Despite these problems, the administration of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expanded the reach of Aadhaar over the past year, requiring it for a host of public services beyond welfare benefits - such as to register marriages or file income tax returns.
Worse, the government wants to make it compulsory to link bank accounts and mobile phone numbers to Aadhaar numbers. Online shopping portals have also started asking for the ID from Indians simply trying to buy a book or a pair of shoes.
Some critics have warned that Aadhaar could turn into an instrument of mass surveillance. At a minimum, it already raises grave concerns about data security and privacy, neither of which is currently protected under Indian law.
Given the many ways in which the Aadhaar system is broken, at the very least it should be made voluntary again, and the data of anyone who opts out should be destroyed.
Aadhaar was supposed to showcase the government's forward thinking about efficient administration; it has only exposed the state's coerciveness. It was supposed to ease the poor's access to welfare; it has hurt the neediest. It was supposed to harness technology in the service of development; it has made people's personal data vulnerable. One of the Indian government's biggest banner projects has become a glaring example of all that can go wrong with policy making in this country. -  NYT Syndicate
Reetika Khera is a development economist based at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi

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