Sunday, March 6, 2011

212 - UID is an Identity Crisis in the Making - Tehelka

Independent law researcher

AN EXERCISE is currently underway to enter every resident in India on a database. In a few years, the unique identification (UID) is intended to become a ubiquitous number, to be used in many operations: enrolling in a school, maintaining a bank account, ticketing for travel, seeking treatment in a hospital and having one’s death recorded in a mortuary register.

The sales pitch for the UID is, like most advertisements, intended to mislead. Enrolment is said to be voluntary. But, and as is now acknowledged, other agencies may refuse to provide a service if an individual is not enrolled, making it compulsory. The Working Paper of the UID Authority of India (UIDAI), which has been the basis of many discussions, starts with a claim that the UID will bring down barriers that prevent the poor from accessing services; but quickly adds: “UID will only guarantee identity, not rights, benefits and entitlements.”

The Public Distribution System (PDS) is the moral fulcrum on which the UID poises itself. Yet, the UIDAI admits to its interest in PDS being closely linked with completing its enrolment targets. Listing the ‘benefits to the UID’ that can flow to it from PDS: “The ration card is today the most prevalent form of identity in rural areas. If the UID enrolment is integrated into the process of the creation of a beneficiary database for PDS, the coverage of UID will improve significantly.” This is such a giveaway.

As with banks, those who have no documents
to vouch for them would face exclusion

The potential that the number may have to enable tracking, profiling, mounting surveillance and ‘convergence’ of information, which will aid market profiling, is being studiously ignored. There are deeply disconcerting facts about the project that should wake up even those dwelling in the slumber of denial.

There has been no feasibility study preceding the setting up of such a pervasive project. There has been no cost-benefit analysis of the project. All calculations are of the back-of-the envelope variety. Data theft is a serious threat. But other than asking us to leave it to the experts, there is nothing more that we know before we give information to the UIDAI. We have as yet no law relating to privacy.

The infallibility of biometrics, including fingerprints and iris scan, is still being tested: evidence has begun to emerge that callused hands, corneal scars and cataract induced by malnourishment may leave many millions outside this pattern of identification. Even as enrolment is poised to begin, authentication is still an unstudied field.

The promise of inclusiveness is belied by the ‘approved’ introducers; that is, where the poor are unable to provide any supporting documents to prove their identity, a network of approved introducers are to “introduce and vouch for the validity of a resident’s information”. UIDAI’s website admits this idea has been borrowed from the account opening procedure in commercial banks.

So, as with banks, those who have no documents to vouch for them would be threatened with exclusion. Where being a legal resident is to be closely tied in with having a UID number, it could render the poor vulnerable to having the legitimacy of their staying in the country being placed in the shadowy terrain of illegality and exclusion.

In an interview telecast on 14 August, UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani explained: “I think the core thing will be our ability to show that it is beneficial for people to have this number. If our ‘customer’, the resident of India, sees value in this number, if he sees that possessing it will bring in a material change in his life, he will come and take it. If he doesn’t do that, then we have lost what seems to be a marketing battle.” The State may have some explaining to do.