Sunday, March 6, 2011

203 - From Aadhaar to an Indian Identity Crisis - Money Life Article

by Ram Krishnaswamy and Vickram Crishna
August 25, 2010 04:00 PM

Ram Krishnaswamy and Vickram Crishna ask whether the government is justified in allocating such a huge investment on Aadhaar, while there are more important issues to be addressed. This is the third part in a series published only in Moneylife

Why shouldn’t Indians, too, have a single-point identity reference, available on demand? After all, we don’t need to look too far for a model ID card.

Just across the bay, in fact. All Singaporeans over the age of 15 compulsorily have an IC card. It is coloured pink for citizens and blue for permanent residents. It is not compulsory to carry the IC card at all times, and there is no compulsion to produce it on demand. On the other hand, ‘suspicious’ individuals can be detained by police until the IC is produced. In Singapore, the good of society is considered more important than the rights and liberties of individuals.

The front side of the IC card displays the holder’s name, race, date of birth, sex, country of birth and a colour photograph. On the reverse are the National Registration Identity Card (NRIC) number and its bar code, a fingerprint, issue date and the holder’s current residential address and nationality, in case of a permanent resident.

Singapore is a society in which bubblegum is a banned substance; reading materials considered indecent are banned; a citizen can be thrown into jail for littering and it is a crime to neglect to flush a public toilet. It has been described as “a nation of people which is clean, green, safe, rich and ruled by fear.” Break the law in Singapore? Be prepared to experience six lashes on bare buttocks with a rattan cane. Singapore is a semi-Police State run by benevolent dictators, where law & order prevails 24/7; police are well-paid; and corruption is almost non-existent. India is a far cry from Singapore. But right next to that island nation is Malaysia, and a quick look at the Malaysian IC card, also known as ‘MyKad’, issued to 28 million Malaysians, will illustrate what the Indian Aadhaar card will become in years to come.

MyKad incorporates both photo identification and fingerprint biometric technology, and is designed with six main functions: identification, driver’s licence, passport information (although a passport is still needed for overseas travel), health information (blood type, allergies, chronic diseases, etc), and an e-cash function. The card can also function as an ATM card. Malaysia plans to add digital signatures for e-commerce transactions.

It is common knowledge that corrupt Malaysian police harass minority Indians by illegally detaining and confiscating their MyKads, without which they simply cease to have any proof of identity. It is also widely known that anyone with a card reader can access all the information contained in the card.

While the USA does not have an official ID card, Americans have their Social Security Number (SSN). It is so widely used that it has become a de facto ID card, although there may be up to 12 million false SSNs in use today. The USA Patriot Act, enacted by the US Congress to vastly increase powers of surveillance and implement a biometric identification system, faced enormous opposition and has, since, been scaled back.

UK Labour Party’s ID card scheme, now permanently abandoned, was aimed at tackling fraud, illegal immigration and identity theft—but it was too expensive and an infringement of civil liberties. The cards were designed to hold personal biometric data on an encrypted chip, including name, photograph and fingerprints. The supporting National Identity Register was designed to hold up to 50 pieces of information.

Appalling losses of personal information from other government and private depositories helped fuel a public outcry that finally propelled political action in the UK this May. Some Indians, who are regularly bombarded with intrusive and unsolicited phone calls and texts, know data leakages are uncomfortable—and commonplace. It remains to be seen whether India will follow the example of privacy and human rights-conscious nations, with its people standing up to say ‘No’ to spending unconscionable amounts of money on half-solutions to ill-defined problems.

(Ram Krishnaswamy is an IIT Madras alumnus and Vickram Crishna is an IIT Delhi alumnus).