Getting 600 million people on the UIDAI database is being touted as a huge achievement. Is that what it really is? Or is there something hollow, even terribly wrong, with this claim?
May be it is time to ask how this was done?
First, there was the circumventing of Parliament. The unqualified damning of Parliament in the years just past made this remarkably easy.
The UIDAI was set up by executive notification on 28th January, 2009 to be initially located in the Planning Commission. It was decided early on that the law would be thought about at some, indefinite, later date. A Bill was actually introduced only on 3rd December 2010, over two months after the UIDAI had begun to enroll and data base the citizenry. It happened even then only because many groups and individuals were insistent, demanding to know how a project that was collecting personal information, including fingerprints and iris, was proceeding without public discussion and parliamentary consideration. The Bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Finance which on 13th December 2011, which roundly rejected the Bill, and recommended that the project be sent back to the drawing board. What did the UIDAI do? They carried straight on with enrolment, and the law fell into a well of silence. When the Supreme Court began to hear cases that had been filed before it challenging the UID project, then it was that talk of a revised Bill was briefly revived, but it led to nothing. So, there is still no law, nothing to define the limits of the project and protect the citizenry against situations such as loss of the data, data theft, abuse by anyone gaining access to the data, and recognise the privacy interest of the individual.
Two, market it as voluntary while working at making it mandatory in places where the citizenry will fear exclusion and so will enroll. Then, even after it has become mandatory by refusing services and subsidies to persons not enrolled for a UID, keep insisting that it is not mandatory, but voluntary. What they were saying was this: when you come to the enrolment station and give enroll, no one physically dragged you there; so it is voluntary. And, if you don’t want to enroll, don’t; except that you may lose your entitlements! The bluff was called in the Supreme Court, when on 23rd September, 2013, the Supreme Court directed that no one should be denied their entitlements because they did not have a UID number. The UIDAI objected, and appealed to the court to allow the government to `insist’ on the UID number – `insist’, another word for mandatory!
Three, brush aside the orders of the Supreme Court. The 23rd September 2013 order was blithely ignored, till, on 24th March 2014, the court had to say it more sharply, and direct the governments and agencies to withdraw orders that made the UID mandatory. We’ll have to see if there is any willingness to follow a court order this time. The UIDAI had already admitted that its interest was in the UID number being `insisted’ on; so, unlike when they marketed the use of the number to the government agencies, they did nothing now about the court order being obeyed. Instead, Mr Nilekani linked up with NASSCOMM, the IT industry body, to set up an `Aadhaar Diffusion Project’ which would encourage the building of `apps’ on the UID platform. When asked about the Supreme Court order, he explained it away as being only about public services. Industry could experiment with it, and Mr Nilekani as head of the UIDAI would encourage and reward such enterprise.
Four, when deficiencies in the process of enrolment led the Home Minister to publicly declare that the UIDAI data was collected in ways that raised questions about its accuracy and use, a strange compromise was hammered out where the UIDAI, which was being charged with hasty and faulty enrolment, was to be allowed to increase the numbers they would be allowed to enroll – from 20 crores to 60 crores! No explanations were offered, then, or thereafter, why the Home Minister’s anxieties just vanished, and why we should feel more secure handing our information to the UIDAI.
Fifth, decide on using fingerprints and iris for enrolment even when there is no information at all about whether they will work in India. Why do I say this? Because the UIDAI, and its Chairman, had no means of knowing whether biometrics could be used across the vast population with its manual workers, plantation labour, migrant workmen and those dealing with chemicals, and across time, to authenticate them. In 2010 Jan-Feb, after the decision to adopt fingerprints and iris, the UIDAI was saying in an official document: “There is a lack of a sound study that documents the accuracy achievable on Indian demographics (i.e., larger percentage of rural population) and in Indian environmental conditions (i.e., extremely hot and humid climates and facilities without air-conditioning).” And, “we could not find any credible study assessing the achievable accuracy in any of the developing countries”.
So, here was an admission that this was an experiment being done on a whole population. Who would be liable if the experiment failed? No one; for there are no structures of liability.
Sixth, refuse to engage with concerns about the consequences that data basing and `convergence’ will have on enhancing the possibilities of surveillance, profiling, tracking, labeling and invading privacy.
Talking to like-minded people at NASSCOMM, Nandan Nilekani said, “There can be an entire Aadhaar-based reputation system in the country”, adding that besides a credit history, the UID number could also help build health or skills records of Indians. “With Aadhaar numbers linked to bank accounts, we are trying to build a system that can be used for commercial purposes and later on for person-to-person transactions,” he added. But this was said only among friends; except, of course, the internet makes some of this visible to others too.
And so it goes on. No respect for law, for court orders, for the individual’s privacy. Using a technology that is uncertain and untested. Deploying coercion and compulsion. Making a business without our data. And more, much more. Such as creating a database that make surveillance, tagging, tracking so much simpler than it was. Such as handing over our data to foreign companies with close links with intelligence agencies including the CIA and Homeland Security in the US, and then saying, most amazingly (in an RTI) that they had no means of knowing that they were foreign companies! And, most unforgivably, causing a culture to emerge when every person will be presumed to be a potential wrongdoer and therefore with each person having to ensure that they are transparent to those who want to control us, and our actions.
The hard-earned gains of getting the state to be transparent by using the RTI is turned on its head, and it is now we who are to be transparent to the state and to whoever else has access to the data and in the many places where the number resides. This, we are told, is how the system is being set right. How much more irony can our democracy bear!