The government already has the means to collect a lot of information on citizens (example, phone conversations and logs, credit card transactions, income tax records, bank account details, etc.). Conversely, there are many activities which happen under the radar (example, cash transactions, informal sector employment, etc.). What kind of information-gathering powers will Aadhaar confer on the State over and above what it already has?
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Demographic information in the Aadhaar database is so limited (name, gender, birth date, and address) when compared to other sensitive personal information mentioned above, and the restrictions against divulging both demographic and biometric information even to other arms of the government are so stringent, that I do not see Aadhaar in itself conferring any new information-gathering powers on the State.
Aadhaar is mandated only for government subsidies, as per the Aadhaar Law, and the only incremental power it gives the State is better ability to rein in massive leakages of public funds, as already demonstrated in the case of LPG (liquefied petroleum gas). The Supreme Court is likely to remain the final arbiter of which programmes may require Aadhaar and, as in the past, it is sure to call out any overreach by the government.
Had Aadhaar been mandated for other services such as telephones, bank accounts, etc., it would certainly have conferred considerably more power on the State as well as on private players. So, it is reassuring to see that the government is letting Aadhaar holders themselves decide where they would like to draw the line between convenience and privacy. In this context, it is worth noting that UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) offers a “Biometric Locking” feature, which allows a resident to effectively opt out of Aadhaar, should she/he be concerned about data privacy.
If I have one wish about the incremental power that Aadhaar could give to the government, it would be the ability to mandate Aadhaar authentication for all property registrations, which are steeped in irregularities.
Aadhaar means a quantum jump in the surveillance powers of the State. Some technologies, like mobile phones, already enable the State to track some aspects of our lives. But they only capture some fragments, and with limited power. Email addresses and mobile numbers can be changed, and there are growing possibilities of protecting oneself, for instance through encryption. Aadhaar makes it possible to link the fragments. It is a leap towards foolproof, total and permanent surveillance – the dream of intelligence agencies. Only an innocent would fail to expect these powers of surveillance to be used to the hilt.
The right to dissent is a hard-won civil liberty. It has come under severe attack in recent years, through selective harassment of dissenters – not always by the government but often with the tacit or explicit approval of the government. For every person who is targeted or harassed, one thousand fall into line. In this climate, Aadhaar could easily be misused for further suppression of dissenting voices. Even without misuse, it undermines the right to privacy, which is an essential foundation of the freedom to dissent.
The use of Aadhaar for purposes other than the delivery of the subsidy is not ruled out by the Aadhaar Act. Unique identification that is required for accessing a variety of services could make it possible to profile individuals. For example, individuals staying in hotels are required to submit personal identification such as passports or driving license. If this were replaced by Aadhaar, government could possibly track individual movements in real time.
The fact that government is already collecting a lot of information can hardly be an argument for furthering that process. In any case, there is a difference between collection of information that is stored in different, unconnected silos and information that is connected across silos through Aadhaar. That is the real danger of Aadhaar. Aadhaar is not required for portability of benefits or for making cash transfers. Local biometrics (as Mukhopadhyay et al. work in Andhra Pradesh has shown) can help de-duplicate as well as Aadhaar biometrics, without the dangers that interlinked databases bring.
I have found the views of Glenn Greenwald’s on privacy, John Oliver’s interview with Edward Snowden, or material prepared by Privacy International, help me understand how such connected data silos facilitate profiling, mass surveillance, concentration of power in the hands of the government, can amount to an invasion of privacy. In my view, we should all try to understand the concerns they raise better.
Note:To view all responses by participant, please click here: Raju Rajagopal, Jean Drèze, Bharat Ramaswami, Reetika Khera