Barcode Nation

Why some Indians are still fighting back against the country's new biometric ID system.


CHENNAI, India — The Unique Identification (UID) system is one of the most enterprising social programs in India today — and probably the most controversial. In a country that lacks a comprehensive identification system, more than 400 million mostly rural Indians have no way of authenticating who they are. This leaves them locked out of public services like banking, social benefits, and even recognition of citizenship. By providing a nationally recognized identity for every citizen and resident, the UID system, known as Aadhaar, is taking a major step forward by establishing a foundation for inclusive institutions that India’s bloated bureaucracy is seriously lacking.

Supporters of the program see special use for UID as an efficient tool for the government to distribute established social services like cash transfers, subsidized food, and kerosene to poor citizens. They say that UID’s technology is necessary to ensure that aid actually reaches the needy. But owing to the prevalence of the same corruption that aid workers are trying to combat, there are strong concerns over privacy and the potential for fraudulence.

The program works by assigning a 12-digit number to each of the country’s 1.2 billion people. Connected to the number are a photograph and two biometric indicators: fingerprints and iris scans. The innovation of using biometric indicators helps by not only creating a truly unique identity, but because it also serves the many illiterate people who never obtained other forms of ID like the PAN Card used for taxes, or a driver’s license. Since rolling out the July 2009 pilot project in the state of Uttar Pradesh, UID has enrolled over 380 million people nationwide and plans to bring that number up to 600 million by the end of 2014.

As enrollment increases, state governments intend to primarily use UID as the linchpin of India’s highly expensive and suspiciously leaky social safety net system. It is intended to improve programs like the Fair Price Shops (FPS) ration card system. In this arrangement, low-income Indians have access to FPS locations in their respective districts to purchase food and goods that the government subsidizes well below market prices. Under the current system, ration cards are given to families living below the poverty line. The cards are intended to entitle these families to FPS benefits, but they can also be used (often fraudulently) as identification cards.

Apart from the likelihood that politicians themselves abuse and indulge in these corrupt activities, the FPS ration card system has a number of other problems. On one hand, many eligible families are not enrolled; on the other, there is a sea of fake cards floating around which middle-class (and even rich) families use to buy cheap goods. The bogus cards are a drain on the system and reduce the amounts of food and kerosene available for the intended recipients. FPS owners are also known to siphon off their heavily subsidized inventory to make a killing on the black market.

Once UID is introduced, Indians who visit an FPS will have to provide their UID number before collecting their allocated quota of subsidized goods. Not only will this create an accountable inventory and offer a new method for collecting secure data on the demographics and needs of the poor, the high bar of personal information required to make purchase should help to prevent the leakage that is estimated to make up as much as 35 percent of the Public Distribution System (PDS) budget. Changing this could have a profoundly positive effect on India’s endemic corruption.

Critics of the UID program, however, question its legitimacy on many counts. Research conducted by New York University Professor Arun Sundararajan and University of Maryland-Baltimore Professor Ravi Bapna seems to validate the effectiveness of the UID program in targeting needy people, but stops short of saying whether it will actually reduce corruption by the significant margin that the organization behind UID, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), seems to promise.

The real opposition, however, comes from parties who strongly criticize the program’s lack of proper oversight. A standing committee within India’s Parliament made strong queries about the legal legitimacy of the UIDAI’s plans based on the fact that, to date, no bill has been passed authorizing UID’s implementation. The project has gone ahead with government approval in the form of an executive order (which provides the authority to implement a program without Parliament’s approval), but the bill in question still needs to be passed by Parliament to have complete legislative authority.

Usha Ramanathan, an eminent lawyer, activist, and known critic of the UID system, also contends that using biometrics is a flawed approach in an economy as labor-intensive as India’s. The fingerprints of the poor are frequently unrecognizable, she points out, since they are worn down by a lifetime of harsh labor.

There is also the concern that, given India’s comparatively weak data privacy laws, the UIDAI grants the state too much power. Ramanathan asserts that UID "would make every citizen transparent to the state including basic information about health, work, bank transactions, and migration via the UID number." Privacy activists are worried that the government could use this data to monitor all the transactional activities of its citizens, especially those who are hostile to the government. In a country known for pervasive corruption and poor governance, this is not an idle concern.

Ramanathan goes on to mention that the identification system could be misused to benefit commercial ventures. Private banks, for example, might be interested in purchasing citizen data in order to promote insurance and banking operations. Politicians, too, might be tempted to use UID applications to covertly send bribes to mass numbers of potential voters, a gimmick that many already partake in through other means.

Nandan Nilekani, the chairman of UIDAI, responds by reminding critics that "criticism of a technology platform on the basis of criticism of an application is unfair and ill-conceived." UIDAI argues for its reliability by referring to the data-sharing policy that it is bound by, which prioritizes protecting the identity of individuals enrolled in the system. But this is not enough. With a rapidly emerging middle class, India and the world are bound to be concerned by data theft, especially without robust legislation from Parliament first to approve and legitimate UID, and then to enhance support systems such as data privacy regulations.

And in addition to this, the technological effort involved in undertaking such a complex project is immense. Projects similar to UID have been on the rise in numerous countries like Malaysia, Germany, Estonia, and Belgium. While some of them have been a success (such as Malaysia’s), others (like the British identification project) were abandoned due to the complexity and cost issues.

The UIDAI team has been prompt in addressing the technological aspects, but real difficulties in coordinating state-level implementation of national-level policy remain. The data collection process is experiencing immense logistical hassles at every level, from awareness outreach to managing the documents that are needed to add individuals. "While we are coordinating the centers, there are issues popping up due to scale. We are also not trained enough to handle this," said an official who did not wish to be named. A 40-year-old daily wage laborer, who gave me only his last name of Muthukumar, spent almost half a day waiting in line to register at a center in Tamil Nadu. "I am not sure of what is going on here but I am told this will make government subsidies reach me faster, so I came here," he told me.

People seem to appreciate the benefits the project could provide, but have little knowledge of its mechanisms. The limited public awareness of the concerns raised by activists and opposition parties means that there is little grassroots opposition to UID.

The open source nature of the UID project allows it to be used for many purposes, but given opposition to the bill and the fact that general elections are slated to take place in 2014, it seems unlikely that Parliament will grant approval in the next year. UIDAI claims that it has responded to all queries posed by the parliamentary committee and that it is confident the bill will pass through the upper and lower houses.

To provide a specific number to every citizen, especially in a country as large as India, undoubtedly involves many challenges and concerns. If it is successful, though, it could enable more efficient delivery of public services, while reducing corruption in turn. The challenge now lies in conducting this project in an inclusive manner, responding to public concerns, allaying the concerns of the critics, and helping deliver identity to the common man on the streets of India.

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