OPINION

Issues With The UID Project (Aadhaar)

August 26, 2010
Ruchi
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was constituted by the Central Government (via notification) in February 2009 to give each Indian resident a UID number. UID will be a unique 12-digit number, which will store basic demographic and identity information of an individual along with his/her biometrics (10 fingerprints, iris scan and photo). As per the government, UID numbers will enable efficient delivery of government services by plugging leakages, and facilitate inclusive development through improved targeting.

However the project was met with widespread concern on grounds of privacy and potential for misuse by elements of the state. Various representations have been made to the Authority through civil society meetings, op-eds and open discussions. In response, the Government has set up a Group of Officers under the Secretary, DoPT to develop a framework for data protection, security and privacy. Simultaneously, the UIDAI has circulated a draft National Identification Authority of India Bill aimed primarily at achieving statutory status while expressly resisting both regulation[a] and accountability[b] (see comments on the draft NIA Bill).

Meanwhile in the UK, the first Bill introduced by the new Conservatives and Liberal Democrat government was the Identity Documents Bill to cancel the similar National ID project. The Coalition Agreement[1] between the two parties stated,

The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion. This will include the scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database“.

The project’s abolition is expected to save the government over £800 M over a decade[2].

The following is an overview of the issues with the UID project, organized around five themes: undemocratic process for project initiation and development; civil liberties; benefits and efficiency; technology; and Costs and Finance

Undemocratic Process and Project

  1. The UID project will directly touch every single citizen and resident of the country; however UIDAI was set-up via a GoI notification as an attached office of the Planning Commission without any discussion or debate in the Parliament or civil society. Further even though the UID project is unprecedented anywhere in the world both in population size and application, no feasibility study was done prior; pilots were commissioned after the Authority had already commenced operations and are being overseen by the Authority raising questions about independence. Finally, the Chairperson of the Authority, Nandan Nilekani was appointed without a transparent appointment process. Nandan Nilekani also heads the Technology Advisory Group for Unique Projects (TAGUP), which has a broad mandate to develop five projects, Tax Information Network, New Pension Scheme, National Treasury Management Agency, Expenditure Information Network and GST
  2. In the year and a half of its inception, the Authority has signed MoUs with virtually all states and UTs, LIC, Petroleum Ministry and many banks. However while rapidly solidifying project details and approach, the Authority has held limited (and closed) civil society meetings thereby withholding participation and proceedings from the public. Despite repeated demands, there have been no open public meetings to discuss the project or answer questions
  3. In July, the Authority circulated the draft NIA Bill (to achieve statutory status); the window for public feedback was two weeks. Despite widespread feedback and calls for making all feedback public, the Authority has not made feedback available. Further in direct contravention to the process of public feedback, the NIA Bill was listed for introduction in the Lok Sabha 2010 monsoon session
  4. UID represents a shift in government policy from a rights based approach (universal and collective e.g., RTI, NREGA, FRA) to that of targeted and individuated subsidies. For instance, in the ongoing PDS reform debate, there is some talk to dismantle the PDS and provide direct cash subsidy to the beneficiary through UID-linked accounts. This prevailing ideological bent of the government was explicitly stated by the Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee in his Budget 2010-11 speech, “With development and economic reforms, the focus of economic activity has shifted towards the non-governmental actors, bringing into sharper focus the role of Government as an enabler. An enabling Government does not try to deliver directly to the citizens everything that they need[3]”. However not only is there no successful precedent of this approach in India (or elsewhere other than the mixed success of Brazil’s CCT program, Bolsa Familia) but it also runs counter to the idea of a politicized and empowered citizen collective

Civil Liberties

  1. UID number enrollment has been conflated with the mandatory census and NPR essentially making enrollment mandatory
  2. The Authority aims to make the UID number the preferred mode of identification for both users and public/private organizations to drive revenue through its identity authentication service. An incontrovertible unique number for one individual across all of his/her life transactions will enable data consolidation thus creating the risk of profiling
  3. The Draft NIA Bill states that the Authority will maintain details of every request for authentication of identity (32(1)) and that identity information may be disclosed in the interests of national security (33 (b)). The two clauses in conjunction are tantamount to tracking individual activity, especially with the increasing prevalence of UID numbers
  4. UID numbers will likely be used to develop NATGRID, a centralized database advocated by the Home Minister P. Chidambaram, to improve security. NATGRID will interlink 21 categories of databases (railway and air travel, Income Tax, phone calls, bank account details, credit card transactions, visa and immigration records, property records, driving licence) for real-time monitoring of all residents in the country. As per reports, the finance minister, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee opposed the project on grounds of privacy; however Mr. Chidambaram argued “the country cannot pay the price in the name of privacy[4]”.
  5. UID numbers will limit the ability of poor migrants to use informal networks to access services. This is especially crucial where many urban governments want to discourage inward migration, and may use UID numbers to deny benefits to those from out of state or inadequate domicile
  6. The Home Ministry has launched the Automated Finger Print Identification Systems (AFIS) to identify criminals; Rs. 15,000 have been earmarked for every police station in the country to purchase a fingerprint reader[5]
  7. The government is licensing credit information companies (CICs) under the Credit Information Companies (Regulation) Act 2005 to develop consumers’ credit profiles based on their transaction history from banks, NBFCs, telecoms and insurance companies. CICs will use UID numbers to collect and collate this information. This will inevitably lead to the type of predatory marketing seen in the United States (on the basis of social security numbers) and on the other side facilitate financial exclusion not inclusion of the poor

Benefits and Efficiency

  1. Significant problems with social sector legislation will be left unaddressed. For instance, UID will address only the wage related defalcation (and possibly payments) in NREGA; however incidence and severity of corruption in NREGA is material related. Other problems such as awareness and works planning will remain. In PDS, errors of inclusion and exclusion will remain, as will policy issues of coverage and FPS viability. The aim of financial inclusion will also remain largely unaddressed since the unavailability of credit is an outcome not just of limited bank branches, but also of the credit worthiness of the individual, e.g., banks will not extend loans to buy daily necessities like the kinara store owner.
  2. Benefits of the UID project are contingent on beneficiary verification at the point of service. Therefore delivery of service will mandatorily be dependent on working biometric equipment. This creates two issues:
    1. Every single point of service must be equipped with a biometric reader e.g., NREGA worksites (~6,00,000), PDS FPS (~4,70,000). Simplest readers cost at least Rs. 2000
    2. Damaged biometric readers either due to normal wear and tear or deliberate sabotage will disrupt service delivery. Any contingency measures that bypass biometric authentication will be susceptible to organized defalcation
    3. Corruption is dynamic and a static single-point mechanism is likely to be fallible in the medium to long-term
  3. UID number verifications will be conducted by matching the given UID number to the biometric information of the individual. Individuals will thus be required to give their 12-digit UID number at the point of service, which may be difficult for the illiterate. This is especially relevant because the UID model for authentication envisions not a 1:N matching (locating the presented biometric sample against the entire database) but essentially a 1:1 matching where the beneficiary will be required to present UID number, which will then be matched pulled up for verification against presented biometric evidence (fingerprint).

Technology

  1. Biometric verification of identity is not 100% accurate. With the Authority’s own stated accuracy assumptions, absolute number of errors could be in the range of 1 – 6 crores
  2. Biometric reader technology is unable to distinguish between the upper skin of a finger (which is almost dead material) and artificially created dummy fingers[6] of silicon rubber, acrylic paint, etc. Depending on the quality of the reader, sometimes even basic photocopied fingerprints are successful in triggering a false accept
  3. Fingerprints can be altered through cheap surgery (~Rs. 15,000). In a recent report, a Chinese woman changed her fingerprints[7] to slip through Japan’s airport biometric identification checks

Cost and Finance

  1. The Authority has not made the budget public. Various newspaper reports estimate project cost up to Rs. 150,000 crore. A recent news report on a Planning Commission meeting[8] pegs the budget at Rs.  35,000-40,000 crore over 5 years (covering half the Indian population).  News report on a finance ministry meeting writes that estimates of per person cost of the UID number have jumped from Rs. 31 to Rs. 450-500[9].
  2. It is likely that the bulk or a significant portion of the cost will be allocated to different social sector schemes that may be required to implement the UID project. Given the stagnant social sector allocation and current push and pull on coverage[10], cost, and deficits, there is some concern that the implementation of the UID project will result in a decrease of the real social sector allocation
  3. As per MoUs between the Authority and states, registrars can charge the user a fee for UID enrollment thereby shifting part of the cost of the project to the beneficiary
UID Resources: For other articles and updates on UID

[a] Draft NIA Bill does not contain details of implementation, which are covered by the phrase, "as may be specified by regulations"

[b] Draft NIA Bill, Clause 46 (1): No court shall take cognizance of any offence punishable under this Act, save on a complaint made by the Authority or any officer or person authorized by it.
[1] Civil Liberties (UK)

[2] BBC News


[3] Speech on IndiaBudget

[4] National Intelligence Grid


[5] Economic Times


[6] Biometry


[7] Biometric Checks - Japan

[8] Costs of a Unique Identity


[9] UID Price Tag


[10] Food Security: universal versus BPL; wide variation in BPL estimates by different reports, and between center and states; NREGA: Increase of days; indexing wages to inflation; Rural health: BPL or all unorganized

Ruchi blogs (infrequently) at http://bourgeoisinspirations.wordpress.com/ and can be reached at gupta.ruchi@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter @ http://twitter.com/guptar
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