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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 20, Dated 21 May 2011
CURRENT AFFAIRS  
UID PROJECT

The trouble with big brother’s eye

The company that will provide biometric solutions for the UID project employs former US intelligence officials. What does this mean for our security, asks Baba Umar

A Delhi resident has his iris scanned

Eye spy? A Delhi resident has his iris scanned

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

LAST YEAR, Tembhali, a hamlet of around 1,500 villagers in Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district, suddenly received a facelift — paved roads, painted walls and uninterrupted power supply. Not much was known about the village until 29 September when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi landed here to launch the world’s largest unique identity programme.

The idea was to create unique biometric identification cards for more than 1.2 billion Indians that will contain basic information such as name, a photograph, gender and date of birth plus a microchip to link the card to a biometric database that will have the cardholder’s fingerprints, iris scan, digital face image and address.

The project, which has already cost around Rs 3,170 crore, is slated to help the poor get access to welfare schemes and rid the PDS of grain diversion and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) of pilferage.

“The UID can be leveraged at various points in welfare schemes to improve the delivery systems by making them transparent and cost-effective,” says Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) Director-General Ram Sewak Sharma.

However, for those working on issues of food security, migration, MGNREGA, civil liberties and human rights, the UID is an invasion of privacy, through which personal information will be stored in a database that could be used for profiling, tracking and surveillance.

And the involvement of companies such as American defence contractor L-1 Identity Solutions — which has names associated with the CIA and other US defence organisations in its top management — together with US-based Ernst & Young and Accenture raises queries about how much access they will have over Indian data.

“Can the government or the UIDAI assure the people that their details will not be shared with business enterprises, companies and political outfits?” asks Gopal Krishna of the Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties. Krishna, who has been aggressively campaigning against the UID, says the Nazi Party had hired IBM to profile people “leading to the Holocaust”. He says IBM was and remains in census business and is currently part of World Bank’s e-Transform Initiative of the developing world of which the UID scheme is a component.

Related

Why Nandan wants to tag You
UID is an Identity Crisis in the Making
Falling Between The Barcodes

The three foreign companies will be implementing biometric solutions for UIDAI that includes designing, supplying, installing, commissioning, maintaining and supporting the multi-modal automatic biometric identification subsystem.

AMONG THE names associated with L-1 Identity Solutions are former CIA director George Tenet and former Homeland Security deputy secretary Adm James Loy, also on the board of Lockheed Martin. The company’s links with the US military establishment is underscored by the fact that its board of directors include former Army Technology Science Board member BG Beck, former chairperson for the Secretary of the Army’s National Science Centre Advisory Board Milton Cooper.

It’s feared that the database can be used as a bulwark against India because all USbased firms are subject to the Patriot Act that obligates American companies to share their data with Washington.

L-1 also mentions on its website its experience with Pakistan’s unique identity agency NADRA (National Database & Registration Authority), which, Krishna says ‘appears to be created on the same business model that is packed by people with intelligence and military links’.

“The UIDAI feared to have linked CIDR with the National Intelligence Grid — created to connect 21 existing databases with Central and state government agencies — and National Population Register and L-1 and Accenture who work in close affinity with US intelligence agencies,” he adds.

Most Christian and Muslim Dalits are probably worse off than so-called Hindu Dalits

Defence experts opposed to the UID, claim that the PMO, defence sites, and more than a thousand government sites were attacked 4,000 times by China in 2010 alone “and things seem no different in this case”.

“The UIDAI has been foolish in its approach towards setting up the UID database,” says Mathew Thomas, former army officer and a vehement critic. “In this programme, fingerprint technology is provided by a US-based company whose directors are former CIA and FBI officers. The database is set up by Accenture. The database is to be linked to other databases like banks, phone companies, etc. Once a person hacks into the UID database, s/he can gain access to any other database. We are handing over data to anyone who would like to take it.”

“Did you hear about the incident in which 77 million Sony Playstation accounts were hacked? That’s why a London School of Economics report warned that such a central database would be a potential target for terrorists. If the purpose is to reduce corruption in welfare schemes, then why create a database of all people? This is where the government and the UIDAI are telling lies. It’s because if they talk about the real purposes of the UID, people would start resisting. It is meant to track and target people,” adds Thomas.

However, contrary to Thomas, others like Brig (retd) Rumel Dahiya of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis don’t find anything wrong with the involvement of foreign firms. “I am not discounting that certain amount of pilferage will take place,” he says. “However, the UIDAI has to make sure that the data being processed isn’t linked to servers abroad and it remains within an Indian system. Information of sensitive nature is protected, vetting of all machines from microchips is done, and physical check is ensured when people are working on a database.”

HOWEVER, UIDAI’S Sharma fends off all this criticism by saying that the “data collected for Aadhaar enrolment will be held by the UIDAI and will not be accessible by outside agencies. Any violation will invoke penalties and legal action. Profiling and tracking info and transaction data will not be collected. The UIDAI will not reveal personal information from the database.”

One of the strongest resistances to the UID comes from legal experts who have been questioning UIDAI’s constitutional validity. According to them, many issues including profiling, privacy safeguards, civil liberties protection, and e-surveillance have been totally neglected from the Bill.

“The UIDAI should have been preceded by a constitutionally-sound legal framework and parliamentary oversight. Both of these are missing, making it an unconstitutional project,” says Supreme Court lawyer Praveen Dalal. “Constitutionally, preparation of a legislation/Bill is the duty of the Indian government and it must be passed by Parliament. But in this case, an authority like UIDAI is suggesting the Bill which is itself devoid of any constitutional validity,” says Dalal, adding the enrolment procedures and the exercise of taking biometric details too is “unconstitutional”.

Noted Supreme Court lawyer Rajeev Dhawan believes that internally displaced and refugees “are likely to be harassed”. “If the UID carries with it any other info that is kept in the government databases, it would be an invitation to big brother governance,” he explains. In an earlier interview to TEHELKA (Why Nandan Wants To Tag You 6 November 2010), UID Chairman Nandan Nilekani had himself argued that India needs a well-debated and pervasive privacy law, not restricted to UID.

UIDAI Director-General Ram Sewak Sharma has rubbished fears of data loss

Still in control UIDAI Director-General Ram Sewak Sharma has rubbished fears of data loss

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Many critics argue that the UID is mainly a security project. And as far as socio-economic benefits of the UID are concerned, the UIDAI itself has stated that it is only in the identity business and the responsibility of tracking beneficiaries and the governance of service delivery will remain with the respective agencies.

“The UID cannot address the bulk of the delivery problems in two of the biggest social sector programmes like MGNREGA and PDS,” says writer and activist Ruchika Gupta. Coupled with technological challenges, the fact that only about half the villages in the country have the mobile connectivity required for UID to work, that biometric readers are error prone, susceptible to damage — linking UID with social sector legislation is completely baseless.

“Without assessing the relationship between an individual and the State, the programme was advertised with the name that corruption is the fundamental problem, but they are handing over all the details to those very people who we are accusing of corruption,” says independent law researcher Usha Ramanathan.

Then there is a strong criticism of the credibility of the UIDAI’s claims in the field of social policy too. “Scrutinising the UIDAI’s documents reveals their poor understanding of how PDS and MGNREGA leakages occur and little evidence of creative thinking on plugging them,” says Reetika Khera, a development economist and assistant professor at IIT, Delhi. She has been critical of the UIDAI’s assertions that the scheme is voluntary. “The UIDAI is eager to enrol people. Till enrolment remains voluntary, people are likely to come in a trickle. To encourage them, government departments will make it a pre-requisite, by linking issue of new job cards to UID enrolment.”

‘Data collected for Aadhaar enrolment won’t be accessible to outside agencies,’ says UIDAI’s Sharma

Khera has a point. Because recently the district administrations in Mysore and Bengaluru initiated steps making UID numbers compulsory at various levels in state government offices. The move leaves no chance to stay away from the scheme.

Similarly, India’s national payment gateway, National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) aims to link Rupay, its soonto- be-launched domestic payment gateway on the pattern of Visa and MasterCard, with the UID programme. The move will allow customers to use their UID numbers as their banking passwords. All this makes UID a compulsory card that will link with it a person’s other information too which is contrary to UIDAI’s policy.

Even as Rajana Sonawane of Tembhali, the first Indian to receive the UID card wonders what benefits the card will offer him, the arguments continue elsewhere about the efficacy of this unique project.

Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]


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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 20, Dated 21 May 2011
 

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