Wednesday, March 2, 2011

15 - The Unique Identity number — putting all eggs in one basket?

Friday, May 21, 2010
21 - The Unique Identity number — putting all eggs in one basket?
The Unique Identity number — putting all eggs in one basket?
JUL 8, 2009 04:08 EDT

The Unique Identity number — putting all eggs in one basket?
JUL 8, 2009 04:08 EDT

There was a television ad some time back where a village leader played by Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan cutely decrees that feuding villagers would be known by their mobile numbers rather than names denoting caste or community.

It’s an idea that no longer seems far-fetched.

This week, the finance minister allocated 1200 million rupees to the Unique Identification Authority of India, headed by former Infosys chief Nandan Nilekani.

The project provides a unique identity number, something like the U.S. social security number, to India’s billion-plus citizens.

It involves setting up a database with the identification details of citizens.

“It also uses an advanced technology like biometrics on a scale which has not been used anywhere in the world,” said Nilekani.

The biometric details will make identification foolproof.

Multi-purpose National Identity Cards have already been issued to a million citizens under a test scheme in some districts.

These will be combined with the unique identification number scheme.

Once implemented, the project is expected to help the government identify beneficiaries of various welfare schemes and help security agencies.

It will also link the database to the election commission and the income tax department.

“The Unique ID number, the number, not the card, is going to be the unifying attribute of all these cards. In other words, you may have four to five cards from different sources but all of them will have the same unique ID of yours that will act as a unifier,” Nilekani said.

However, there are misgivings about the project.

Tavleen Singh, writing for the Indian Express says the project may just add “to the massive infrastructure of our bureaucracy.”

“The BPL (below poverty line) folks that I know in Mumbai and Delhi do not have birth certificates, identity cards or any proof of nationality. Even if they did, they have no means of knowing how to access the benefits that accrue to them. Will a national identity card make their lives less difficult?”

“And, besides how will the card work in villages that do not have adequate supplies of electricity leave alone computers?” she asks.

Columnist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar writes — “If the implementers have no interest in service delivery, can a smart card outsmart them?”

It’s an appealing idea to be able to put down a number instead of filling details in a form on one’s father, mother, locality and surname and be immediately slotted.

But having practically lived as a stateless citizen in my own country for a while (no voter id, no ration card, no permanent address, a bank account but on the office address) I am all for letting the state know that I exist, occasionally outside my office in my unofficial capacity as well.

But will everyone trust the government or the bureaucracy with all their details available at the click of a button?

Misuse of voters list to target communities during riots has been alleged. Data can leak.

Who for instance will or can have access to someone’s fingerprints on a biometric database?

In a situation where the government in general has less information about people than more, this question seems a forced one.

But with the first set of numbers to be issued by late 2010, this issue would need to be resolved.

Is Nilekani by uniting “databases in disconnected silos“, going to be our Harold Bluetooth, the eponymous Viking warrior after whose unifying efforts the wireless technology is named, or a Big Brother?