Tuesday, March 8, 2011

255 - Aadhaar and the myth of lack of identity - Money Life

October 05, 2010 08:19 PM
Samir Kelekar
What is needed today to solve the problems of the poor is not so much esoteric technology but first and foremost clear logic as to where the problems lie. Most poor get deprived of what they should get because of corruption, and not lack of identity

The UID programme has been launched without any legal and constitutional sanction for it as yet. In the name of the poor, a huge amount of money is being spent.

And, in spite of severe criticism from rights organisations including warnings by eminent academicians such as Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, no action of reviewing the project has been taken.

The main argument of the UID that it will help plug leakages in NREGA and PDS is fallacious.
Consider these two videos from the ground:

1) MREGA corruption video

2) Villagers expose corrupt dealer

The first video shows how the supervisor who is in charge of the NREGA programme takes a bribe to mark the attendance of the workers.

It is not that the workers don't have a form of identification. They do have a job card. Their work does not fetch them anything unless their attendance is marked, and for that they have to depend on the supervisor. And the supervisor asks a bribe for it. UID or for that matter no amount of identification can solve this problem.

Consider the second video which is about PDS. Here the ration shop owner charges more money for the grain. Here too, lack of identification is not the problem, and hence UID will be of no good to solve this problem.

If one goes by estimates done by various sources, the leakage in the government schemes due to fake cards is about 8% to 10% - a miniscule part of the whole lot of leakages. In the case of PDS for instance, most leakages do not take place at the last mile as per the UIDAI hypothesis; instead it is the big corrupt sharks who are involved in siphoning grains before they reach the ration shop itself.

Thus, it is clear that not enough study is conducted by UIDAI in concluding that lack of identification is the real problem. No wonder, there was no independent impact assessment study of what the UIDAI project can lead to, which if done, the above problems would have been revealed. This begs the question - is the amount to be spent on UIDAI in the name of plugging of leakage of government aid justified?

A cost-benefit analysis would have given the right answers.

Jean Dreze, who conceived NREGA, has said that the UID project is a security project camouflaged as a welfare initiative.

The examples shown above reveal that the UIDAI project will not be able to plug other than minor forms of leakages from the government aid programmes; further, that too at huge costs and many other negative fallouts.

Also, some of the technological choices made by the UIDAI project may just be not the best ones available, but in fact could be counterproductive.

A recent report based on a multi-year study by the US-based National Research Council states that biometrics are inherently unreliable for authentication as a replacement for other forms of authentication.

The reasons given are as follows:
First of all, biometric authentication is called "inherently probabilistic." That is, the match between sample and master record will always include some uncertainty - no matter how good a sample, the sensor reading the sample and the information technology system matching the sample to a master record.

Among the reasons for that uncertainty is the nature of biometric identifiers themselves. Human bodies and the features on them aren't necessarily constant over time.

 Also, biometric identifiers, while difficult to duplicate on the body of another person, are still available for surreptitious collection through fingerprint gathering, as per the report. It concludes that an imposter could be detected by a human operator administering the biometric authentication system, but that "significantly constrains remote or distributed applications of biometrics."

The report doesn't dismiss the possible usefulness of biometric authentication, however, noting that in combination with other methods, it can augment security at least in applications "where user cooperation can be inferred."

Interestingly in the case of UIDAI, none of the above cases apply. Specifically, the human operator says the ration shop owner administering the biometrics in the case of UIDAI should be considered an adversary as he would himself have interest in stealing the biometrics of the ration card holder.

Further, he operates in a remote area where what he does is not visible to the authorities unlike say in a setting such as an international airport.

Thus, he could probably design a number of ways of beating the authentication process of biometrics. It is precisely these kinds of use case scenarios that haven't been thought through thoroughly by the UIDAI folks.

Another argument given by the UIDAI authorities is that of inclusion, and that 120 million migrants have no form of identity.

Consider the following scenario: A genuine migrant with his home town from Azamgarh moves to Delhi and goes to a bank there for a loan. Since his permanent address is not Delhi, banks could deny him a loan. In fact, instead, he might be put on a terror watch list. Is there a guarantee that his UID won't be used against him, in fact to exclude him rather than for inclusion?

All the above issues point out that Aadhaar is using lack of identity as a myth to justify its spend. Remove the myth and Aadhaar stands bare, without any justification other than mainly as a national security project and for purposes of targeted marketing, linking data, tracking and surveillance, and yes, some amount of convenience due to easy check of one's identity.

What is needed today to solve the problems of the poor is not so much esoteric technology but first and foremost clear logic as to where the problems lie. Most poor get deprived of what they should get because of corruption, and not lack of identity. The bull of corruption needs to be taken by the horns and not by the tail which Aadhaar tries to do.

Secondly, the poor should be made aware of their rights, and empowered to tackle corruption. As is shown in the two videos (linked above), if at all technology should be used, it should be stealth cameras which should be given to the poor free; instead Aadhaar fetters the poor by taking their biometrics.

(The author has a B Tech from IIT Bombay, and a PhD from Columbia University, New York. He currently runs a start-up, Teknotrends Software Pvt Ltd that does cutting-edge work in the area of network security).