Wednesday, March 2, 2011

23 - Editorial on Unique Identification Project - Source Pragoti

Sunday, May 23, 2010
40 - Editorial on Unique Identification Projet

Editorial on Unique Identification Project
Thu, 2009-10-08 09:14 | FSMK

The Unique Identification Project spearheaded by former Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani has been much touted as a major project that will aid the multiple welfare initiatives that are under the purview of the State. Understandably, this project would involve the use of software for maintaining, generating and disseminating databases of millions of people. The Free Software Movement of Karnataka addresses issues related to the project from the perspective of the Free Software Movement. Following is an editorial published in a newsletter of the FSMK.

In this edition we choose to write about an important topic concerning each citizen of India. Let us start this with a simple question. Why do we endorse free software? Free software is 'freedom' software. The user has the full freedom to understand the software (by analyzing the source code), has complete freedom to upgrade or customize according to his need, and can also fix the bugs without any dependency. Freedom to understand a piece of source code is very crucial as far as an individual (or user) is concerned.

We know this, then why are we reiterating this basic question?

The union budget '09 proposed to provide a Unique Identifier (UID) number to each citizen in this country. It is argued that this UID number would help the Government in identifying targeted beneficiaries for various welfare schemes. Various departments based on their needs, would be using this number. Going forward, this UID number would avert the need for multiple proof of identity for citizens like, ration card, electoral card, pan card, etc.(Apart from availing Government services, it would be used for private needs also, such as opening bank accounts or seeking telephone connections). Hence no doubt, the role of this number is very crucial. Taking all these arguments into consideration, the implementation of this project has to take place with utmost care as it carries a very important projected role as far as society's progress, justice and welfare is concerned. Another important aspect is security. The UID database holds very crucial information and is very much important as far as National Security is concerned. Virtually this UID Database holds the key for all kinds of information. Considering the global and national scenarios, this project is of prime importance. The project is very huge. Initial budget estimation is of Rs 120 crores. And for sure it would be revised multiple times before implementation (and can end up 3 to 5 times above budget estimation considering our practical experiences from the industry.) Any one can oversee the complexity of the work which includes construction of a new online database with identity and biometric details of each citizen of India. We feel this includes development of sophisticated applications which may include many tiers, huge databases, different types of reports, packages etc. It may also include interaction with different existing systems, and migration of data from those systems.

So, what has happened?
Well, some disturbing news is heard.

“Microsoft is keen to partner in this project.” We have serious reservations on the involvement of Microsoft in this crucial project. Freedom is each individual's fundamental right. He cannot allow infiltration to his privacy or dictating terms to him. What about a society? A society can be termed as progressive only when each individual's right and freedom is protected. This is exactly the State's role. It should ensure the freedom and well being of each of its citizens. Microsoft is notorious on denial of the freedom (in digital world). Restricting access to source code and not allowing modifications from users is denial of his fundamental right - freedom to know – which is the corner stone of any society's progress. Denial of freedom to know (for a user and in this context the user is Indian government) gives freedom for Proprietary Software companies to infiltrate his(user's) privacy. The sheer number of anti- rust suits against Microsoft and other Proprietary Software makers is a testimony to the monopolistic tendencies of corporates and their utter disregard to the laws of the land, in pursuit of making money by hook or crook. In one of those cases, Microsoft argued that it cannot continue revealing further information to the judge, as the information is closely related to US national security. In short Microsoft is bound by the US Laws and is having strong strategic alliance with US Government, obviously this is in conflict with our national interest as USA can use this alliance for achieving any objectives they wanted (they have also announced Cyber warfare NSPD 16 for crippling any networks across the world, which makes the whole scenario more complicated). All these facts suggest an impending danger is looming on the sovereignty of India if we allow Microsoft in implementing this project. Just imagine how terrible it will be if the presence of malicious code or bugs in Microsoft's proprietary closed source crashes or corrupts the database, where future ofmillions depends. The source code of a project which is having tremendous importance to India, should be owned solely by the Govt. of India and not by Microsoft or any other corporates. A software can be termed as secure only if the freedom to examine or modify the code lies with its user, in this case Govt. of India. As per IT Act 2000, public systems cannot have malicious code inside. IT Act further says, public systems should not cause leakage of sensitive information relating to "privileges of parliament, trade, or other sensitive information". This can only be ensured if public systems are only on Free Software. Besides this, what if Microsoft resorts to steal the most vital and crucial information (as Satyam computers did to World-bank) and thereby destabilizing the country as part of USA's global imperial agenda? It is unimaginable. Another classic example is the case of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA, which demonstrated how Proprietary Software is a threat to the sovereignty of a country. (click here for more details).

Apart from the security concerns shared above, we identify Microsoft's attempt as a crooked one! Microsoft sees the huge benefits it could accomplish by involving in this project. Huge budget involvement, support work (in software industry, majority of revenue is churned from the support work, and one can not deny the possibility of introducing bugs in the software for getting the support work!), upgradation work, backward entry to National E-commerce project implementations, increased market penetration and forcing of the implementation of IPR and copy right laws by close association with the policy makers etc are few of the advantages they could easily get! Adding to above, storage, distribution and display formats of this crucial data are very important. Openness and Interoperability are two vital and basic requirements for any standard. It is often correctly noted that the closed standards would drive one in to the folds of proprietary realm and thereby much serious patent complications. We must ensure that vital data of this stature is stored in formats that are open and free of all constraints like royalties, patent claims etc and there by should not allow to be controlled by anyone. Incidentally, this is also time where India's Draft Policy on Open Standards close to finalization, and in a surprise move, Nasscom – a representing body of the industry and MAIT recommended inclusion of standards under RAND terms and the usage of multiple standards in the same domain. Both of these recommendations have serious implications as far as India's interest is concerned. Issues of interoperability (between different standards), complications (on adhering to multiple standards) and high cost (of proprietary standards and bringing one in to the fold of patent issues) are few of the major issues. We suspect Microsoft's role and motivation on Nasscom and MAIT's recommendation. Another disturbing fact is Nandan Nilakeni whom our union ministry entrusted to implement this crucial project. This project can be handled easily by any senior administrative officer who is having prior experience of implementing complex e-commerce applications. He could be biased as his previous company shares, business interest with Microsoft and also they voted for OOXML, much against national interest. Considering his links and role he played in Infosys, the possibility of Infosys being promoted cannot be overruled (and obviously going with the proprietary realm). All indications are that Microsoft is directing heavy lobbying in India for accomplishing its vested interests.

Different studies have shown the superiority of Free Software when compared with Proprietary Software. Robert Francis Group (IBM-sponsored research) found security levels in GNU/Linux generally exceeded those in Windows, providing a more secure and manageable environment out of the box with significantly more functionality in terms of security integration and management. The Linux kernel programming code is better and more secure than the programming code of most Proprietary Software - based on a four-year analysis of the 5.7 million lines of Linux kernal source code conducted by five Stanford University researchers. So we should use only Free Software for the implementation of this crucial project. It is the only way for developing a superior implementation, in a very economical way which is important for a country like India where majority of population is in poverty and destitution.

We fear that this project may lead to giving pathway for the Proprietary Software companies and their products to the ecommerce projects, which is against National interest in different ways – Huge economic loss for the national exchequer, inferior quality products, with future liabilities and the most important one - invoking gross vulnerability to National Security and stability. This needed to be countered at any cost. State should have control on the software products it purchases or develops. We cannot allow these proprietary s/w companies to loot public money for inferior quality products and allowing them to infiltrate in to the freedom of our fellow citizens. We appeal our readers to raise your voice against the infiltration attempts of Microsoft (and other companies who endorse proprietary realm in software industry) and to endorse Free Software for keeping nation's interest forefront.

“The most unfortunate thing is that India still seems to believe in proprietary solutions”