India’s Plan to ‘Identify’ Residents Could Backfire

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The personal data of nearly 4 million filers and 700,000 businesses exposed in a recent attack on South Carolina’s Department of Revenue servers only underscores the risks associated with a State’s policy vis-à-vis dependence on biometrics. Identity theft is huge. From phishing, pre-texting, fake job offers, skimming and so forth, the ploys only grow in number compounding the risk in securing data.

The United Kingdom shelved an Identity Cards Project for a series of reasons that included extraneous costs and “possible overruns,” as well technology used being untested, unreliable and unsafe, the possibility of risk to the safety and security of citizens, and requirement of high standard security measures that result in escalating the estimated operational costs.

The London School of Economics Report on the UK’s Identity Project inter-alia states that “… identity systems may create a range of new and unforeseen problems… the risk of failure in the current proposals is therefore magnified to the point where the scheme should be regarded as a potential danger to the public interest and to the legal rights of individuals.”

India has embarked upon a colossal Unique Identification Project, a Planning Commission-initiative “aimed to provide identification for each resident across the country” and to be used primarily “as the basis for efficient delivery of welfare services.” Without legislative or legal sanction, the initiative reeks of arbitrariness and a stark disdain for the rule of law and will cause more harm than good.

Any act of the State that may seem arbitrary or excessive is prone to be struck down by law. Guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, the Right to Life enshrined in Article 21 ensures that citizens have the right to live with dignity, clean air, and potable water – basic human rights that include security and privacy!

The Unique Identification (Aadhar Card) was created to “plug loopholes” and help tackle the issue of infiltration of over 1.4 million illegal Bangladeshis into India over the past decade. A recent arrest of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants with valid documents, with one even possessing a valid Aadhar Card, quashes the very basis of the card raising questions about the legality of the process.

Comparable with United States immigration concerns from Mexico, Bangladeshis continue to bleed India’s economy, compound the law and order situation and add to an overwhelming population’s basic needs. In seemingly similar situations, both nations grapple with political rhetoric on the issue of extending human rights to the immigrants.

In India, sections of the polity have conveniently undermined the risk of security to gain the confidence of a vote-bank sympathetic to the Bangladeshis, solely on the basis of religion. The trend, however deplorable, works like magic when it comes to procuring support from a “voting-conscious” lot.

The right-thinking intelligentsia simply does not exercise its right to franchise. So, despite the absence of sanction, there is a maddening rush for “registration” particularly among those without legal paperwork in place. Those without any identification papers are by procedure allowed to produce an “affidavit” to their Aadhar Card providing the perfect foil to India’s grand plan.

The Standing Committee on Finance has recommended that in the absence of data protection legislation, it would be difficult to deal with issues like access and misuse of personal information, surveillance, profiling, linking and matching of databases and securing confidentiality of information etc.

It has also noted that the Ministry of Planning has admitted that no committee has been constituted to study the financial implications of the UID scheme, and comparative costs of the Aadhaar number and various existing ID documents are also not available.

Strongly disapproving the hasty manner in which the UID scheme has been approved, the Committee noted that unlike many other schemes/projects, no comprehensive feasibility study has been implemented involving all aspects of the UID scheme. This includes cost-benefit analysis, comparative costs of Aadhaar number and various forms of existing identity, financial implications and prevention of identity theft such as using a hologram enabled ration card to eliminate fake and duplicate beneficiaries.

Consider the following: A Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the UK DNA database which held over 4.5 million records, has a range of errors. Between January and November 2007, 1,450 demographic discrepancies were discovered including spelling errors, date taken amendments, force code amendments, and crime codes.

In August 2007 the UK government admitted there were more than 550,000 records with incorrectly recorded or misspelled names. In May 2007 the government stated that over a 10 year period (1995 to 2005), 26,200 DNA records were not loaded resulting in 183 undetected crimes. Little wonder then that the UK shelved its Identity Card project.

Instead of taking cue from stories of international failure, India chooses to go the biometric way. Without due process and legal sanctions in place, India will learn its lesson the hard way.

Gajanan Khergamker is an independent editor and legal counsel with over three decades of experience. He heads DraftCraft – an India-based media-legal think tank. His areas of expertise include policy, inclusion, foreign affairs, law and diversity. His firm’s website is www.draftcraft.in and he can be reached at gajanan@draftcraft.in. Read other articles by Gajanan.

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