Aadhaar Bill: Move towards a surveillance State?

  • Blog Post Date 05 May, 2016
  • Perspectives
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Jean Drèze

Ranchi University; Delhi School of Economics

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Reetika Khera

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

Most advanced economies have had some version of UID for a long time, example, the Social Security number in the US, the Social Insurance Number in Canada, etc. This is recorded not only in interactions with the State (example, tax filing) but also in many kinds of non-governmental transactions (example, college admissions or property purchase). Yet, it is arguable that these nations have not become police States, occasional abuse notwithstanding. If privacy concerns in India are justified, is it a reflection of the trust deficit in government specific to India (or poorer countries more generally)? Or do schemes like UID inevitably lead to a surveillance State anywhere in the world?

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Raju Rajagopal

I do not think that the trust deficit in government is specific to India or to poorer countries: example, poll after poll in the US show very high levels of mistrust in their government. The difference between the two countries, however, may be that Americans tend to trust their personal information with private agencies more than with the government (despite the fact that the largest data breaches have come from that sector!) while Indians have historically entrusted their personal information more to the government than to private agencies (which is changing rapidly with the proliferation of online transactions). In any case, it is ironic that activists who are at the forefront of the fight for a larger government role in poverty alleviation in India are also often the most distrustful of the government when it comes to data privacy.

Depending upon one’s definition of a surveillance State, one could make a case that both the US and India are already there, especially in the context of their ‘fight against terrorism’ and the virulent strain of ‘nationalism’ currently infecting the Indian polity. The real question is whether fears of large-scale misuse of personal data by the government are justified.

In my view, if such fears were real, India would have already be an Orwellian State, given the ubiquity of personal data generated by mobile phones and the internet in recent years. Thankfully, that has not happened; and there is no credible reason to believe that adding Aadhaar numbers to the mix is going to dramatically change the situation. Having said that, it is still incumbent upon the government to do all it can to ease the concern over potential misuse of data. For instance, it could commit to periodic reporting of the number of exceptions made to data access under clause 33 (that is, via order of the courts and/or for national security).

Jean Drèze

I don’t think that any advanced economy has “some version of UID” today. And I doubt very much that any of them, at least among those with a vibrant democracy, would be able to impose this sort of invasion of privacy on the public.

Identity numbers such as the Social Security number of the US are based on the principle of “minimum use, maximum safeguards”. With Aadhaar, maximum use is the motto, and the privacy safeguards are very weak. The champions of Aadhaar want it to be “ubiquitous”, as Nandan Nilekani himself puts it.

Surveillance concerns are not unique to India, as we know from Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald among others. The need to oppose invasions of privacy and restrict the power of the State is more or less the same in India as in other democracies. This is an argument for resisting Aadhaar, not supporting it.

Bharat Ramaswami

The objective of the Aadhaar Act is to enable targeted delivery of subsidies and benefits. While the Bill promises that the biometric information will only be used for enrolment and authentication, the government can obtain the information on the grounds of national security. Since the receipt of subsidies have no conceivable national security implication, the clause must have been inserted to allow for circumstances not specified in the Bill. Such a broad-brush exemption would be troubling anywhere in the world and the trust deficit is not unique to India.

Aadhaar may lead to a surveillance State if its use becomes mandatory for a variety of services such as travel, communications, financial and medical services.

Reetika Khera

Identity numbers are not my field of specialisation, so it is hard for me to comment on the similarities (or lack thereof) between UID and the social security numbers in other countries. However, the LSE Identity Report, which resulted in UK scrapping its biometric ID project, could as well have been describing Aadhaar. The proposal, they said, was “neither safe nor appropriate”, “technically unsafe”; the technology “is, to a large extent, untested and unreliable”. In particular, biometrics was a cause of concern because it “has never been used at such a scale.” Further, “many of the public interest objectives of the Bill would be more effectively achieved by other means.” And finally, “The success of a national identity system depends on a sensitive, cautious and cooperative approach.” The report also raised questions about the costing of the project because “figure does not include public or private sector integration costs”.


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