When Mammoths Leapfrog, Who Do They Trample?

07 Tanuj Kalia_large

by Tanuj Kalia

The Indian government has collected 15 petabytes of identity-related information about its citizens. Intricate issues like this are further scrutinized in iversity’s Public Privacy course.

The Mammoth

India’s population stands at 1.2 billion people; US is at 313 million; France at 65 million. India is nearly 4 times as big as the USA and nearly 20 times as big as France. Managing so many people has its challenges.  Let’s suppose that one of the goals of the Indian government is to speed up financial inclusion and have bank accounts for all eligible Indians. To avail any social security benefits like a bank account (or other things like a driving license, a mobile SIM etc.), something termed as KYC (know your customer) information proofs have to be provided. 

The bare minimum KYC is: an ID proof, an age proof and a proof of residence. About 80% (1 billion) Indians do not have the documents to adhere to the minimum KYC. They cannot get a bank account!  In our example, the goal of the Indian government lies unfulfilled. 

Leapfrog for a Mammoth 

“Aadhaar project is […]using modern technology to leapfrog”, said Nilekani in an interview to India’s leading daily the Times of India. What is Aadhaar? And who is Nilekani? Nandan Nilekani, now 58, is an IIT Mumbai alumnus and was the co-founder of Infosys and its CEO from 2002 to 2007. He’s has been chairperson of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) since it’s conceptualization in 2009. The UIDAI has been formed with a vision to assign every Indian a Unique Identity Number or an Aadhaar number. 

Aadhaar means Cornerstone. The Aadhaar number is verifiable online because it is linked to a person’s basic biometric information: a photograph, fingerprints and both irises. The Government of India has been conducting this huge exercise, giving Indians their Aadhaar numbers, with Aadhaar kiosks set-up all across India. To use the Aadhaar Number, the physical presence of the person is not required. How about voting using your mobile phone? Or availing social security benefits from anywhere? Banking facilities for all Indians? Suddenly, Aadhaar looks like a game changer. 

Mammoth Surveillance?

One of the ways in which the Aadhaar number can be used is to help India with ‘national security’. Will it lead to excessive state surveillance? This fear is further aggravated by the fact that India does not have any law which deals with data protection or data privacy. The Information Technology law in India is still developing.

Furthermore, the UID data, in the hands of a dictatorial or an anti-secular governmental regime can turn data into a large resource to target certain members/groups. Also, though the UID scheme is ‘voluntary’, at least on paper, many Indians, both educated and uneducated, are being ‘goaded’ into getting an Aadhaar Card for themselves through wide-spread rumours. One rumor was: You can’t get a Gas connection/LPG cylinder unless you have an Aadhaar card. Thankfully a Supreme Court decision clarified on this issue.

Critical and Critical Mass

Edward Snowden’s exposure of surveillance done by the USA and UK is a good enough warning for the rest of the world to not trust their private information with the State. Since the start of the program in 2009, nearly half of the Indians (600 million people) have been issued Aadhaar cards! The project has reached critical mass! For Aadhaar to succeed in India, for the mammoth to leapfrog and not trample many a good samaritan, it will have to find the right mixture of technologically and legally empowered data security.

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