Unique Identification Number: The Politics of Privacy and Information
May 02, 2010
C R Sridhar
The new power is not money in the hands of the few, but information in the hands of the government.
The project of providing every Indian residing in India with a unique identification number (UID) through the UIDAI would cost the exchequer a staggering sum of Rs 3000 crores. The UPA government under Dr Manmohan Singh has appointed Mr. Nandan Nilekani with full cabinet status, ex-corporate honcho of Infosys Technologies, to oversee the project. The entire project is expected to be completed within a three-year period. The government also proposes to maintain a mammoth citizen database containing details of the births, deaths, marriages, passport data, bank account data, and ration card data. The identity cards issued to the citizens would be in the form of smart cards and which will carry personal information as well as biometrics and photograph of the citizen. The ostensible purpose of the UID is to help identify the target population for the government schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, National Rural Health Mission and Bharat Nirman. The other purpose is to address concerns relating to security issues such as combating terrorism.
Metaphor of the cult of information
Like the blandishments offered by snake oil salesmen, the hard sell of the project by the media conveniently ignore the grave issues pertaining to intrusion of privacy of the citizens and subversion of democratic values of the society by misusing information gathered about the citizens in government databases. Implicit in the UID scheme is the overwhelming metaphor of the cult of information with its elements, namely, the façade of ethical neutrality combined with scientific rigour and technocratic control. Not unlike the Utilitarianism of which Jeremy Bentham was the chief priest, the UPA government has intuitively grasped that in a dynamic society the control of facts- or even the apparent control of facts – begets power. ‘It creates’, says Teodore Roszak a critic of the abuse of Information Technology, ‘the impression of competence; it confers the very ability to govern.’1 Also the blind faith reposed in information gives rise to the erroneous belief that whatever comes out of computer databases must be reliable.
The historian G. M. Young describes the Benthamite formula as consisting of ‘inquiry, legislation, execution, inspection, and report.’2 and it has influenced governments all over the world. This has spawned an omnivorous appetite for data mongering in modern governments. With the advent of computer/ information technology, government agencies and the private sector have limitless access to information, which can be delivered at lightening speed. The assumption inherent in data collection and use is that facts are omnipotent and they can stand-alone battling sentimentalism and dishonest use of rhetoric in social and political issues. But nothing could be untrue than the fact that databases churning out facts utilizing computer/ information technology would present truth and aid rational policy decisions. As Roszak warns us ‘It is not raw factual material that simply drops out of the world into a database. It is focused inquiry and interpretation based upon a solid set of ideas about the world.’ The mistake of believing that facts empower the citizens and save democracy rests on the dubious proposition that thinking is a form of information processing. That somehow more data will produce better understanding. What is vital in democracy is the quality of data and not sheer data glut. It is asking questions such as what is the big picture? What are the hidden agendas? Information is transformed into vital political, social, and economic issues by illuminating them with ideas such as about justice, freedom, equality, security, public virtue and the good society.
This may seem as dry philosophical discussion on the theory of knowledge but they are important as they point out unless facts are illumined by ideas there is no meaning but only irrelevant details obfuscating policy issues.
A surveillance society
Perhaps the grave danger of the UID scheme is the potential threat to individual privacy. Smart cards storing personal data of citizens have aroused the concern of human right activists who warn that the citizen could well be tracked with the help vast databases containing information of the individual. In Europe as well as in US there are well-defined body of laws (privacy laws and data protection laws) to prevent gross abuse of power by governments. In India such laws are practically non-existent. Legal experts say that even these laws are insufficient to protect the interests of the individual. ‘Most of them are broad spectrum legislation,’ says Roszak, ‘filled with exceptions and loopholes and lacking any effective means of enforcement.’ To compound the problem the technology out paces the laws rendering them obsolete. It is like a race between an ox cart and a supersonic jet.3
In an Information Technology economy there many data intensive centers such as banking, insurance, brokerage, public administration and telecommunication corporations who collect data of their customers. One of the most important entities that welcome data is of course the government. In the past the absence of digital data and information industry limited the government to collect and store data. Now with the unprecedented explosion of the information technology the government can keep track of its citizens effortlessly. Now with databases connected to unified computer networks through computers the state has unlimited access to information as the data are not kept in hermetically sealed spaces but are becoming interconnected. This integration of data enables the government to profile its citizens effortlessly. For instance, transaction data gleaned from credit card usage could be matched with tax records. The surfing habits of the customers of Internet providers can give the state the ability to get richer profiles of the citizens. The power of the government to subdue political dissent is real as it could leak out embarrassing details such as sexual gender orientation about its political opponents. The bland reassurances that information is safe in the hands of the government should be taken with a pinch of salt, as the only safeguard against misuse of information is not to give the information to the government in the first place.
The Unique Identification Number is a part of series of measures carried out in other Countries such as US, Malaysia, and Thailand , to name a few, which have a dangerous potential for abuse of privacy. The Total Awareness System signed into law by Bush administration has disturbing questions about serious abuse of privacy. As an article in Salon.com says-‘ Privacy experts say the program will allow the government to routinely mine thousands of databases — from drivers' licenses to bank statements to telephone records — to compile dossiers with scant regard for people's innocence or guilt.’ 4
In Malaysia human rights activists have alerted the world to the aggressive measures by the government to invade privacy. As they point out-‘ the card, known as 'MyKad', incorporates both photo identification and fingerprint biometric technology and is designed with six main functions: identification, driver's license, passport information (although a passport is still required for travel), health information (blood type, allergies, chronic diseases, etc.), and an e-cash function.’ As the report chillingly reminds us-‘ With so much personal information stored on the MyKad, even proponents of the card have acknowledged inherent privacy risks: "[h] aving the smart card will probably increase theft...because the attraction is there. There is a lot of personal information stored [on the card], including buying patterns which would attract (card cloning) syndicates," according to industry analyst Jafizwaty Ishahak. Recently, the National Registration Department (NRD) admitted that the practice of surrendering identity cards to security guards before entering certain premises might need to be changed because of privacy concerns. The Consumers Association of Penang has argued that the cards make individuals' personal and confidential information too vulnerable and has recommended that the proposed Personal Data Protection Act address these risks specifically. The Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations criticized the government for not implementing clear guidelines or consulting with the public on how MyKad is to be used, by whom and for what purpose. The Federation also challenged the security of the system, contending that the storage of personal information in a centralized database makes it vulnerable to tampering and sabotage.’5
In Thailand the controversial adoption of smart cards capable of storing substantial amounts of personal data, including the cardholder's name, address, age, religion, medical information, biometric data, familial status, and even financial information has raised the hackles of human right groups. At the Smart Cards and Society Conference, held at Chulalongkorn University in November 2004, several human rights and privacy advocates criticized the government for pushing an intrusive identification system while the country still lacked a data protection law, and called for public debate on the subject.6
The UID scheme is voluntary, according to Nilekani, but the catch is that its coercive nature lies in artificially creating a demand for it among various agencies. Schools may not admit children if the parents do not give identification number. Nor will banks open accounts for customers who do not have identification numbers. Such instances can be multiplied to render a citizen a non-person who can’t live in a digital society unless he or she can be tracked.
As Roszak the critic of Information technology warns us-‘ for the snoops, the sneaks, the meddlers, data glut is a feast. They exist to reduce people to statistical skeletons for rapid assessment…. This is human existence neatly adapted to the level of binary numbers: off/on, yes/no. It yields a world without shadows, secrets, or mysteries, where everybody becomes a naked quantity.’
A welfare state for IT corporations
The beneficiaries of the massive 3000 crores bonanza would be IT companies such as TCS, Infosys and Wipro who are facing challenging times as large part of their clientele come from the developed economy facing recession. There are other questions about the propriety of having Mr Nilekani as the head of the project when there appears to be conflict of interest especially when Infosys could be one of the beneficiaries of public money. Even though he has resigned from his company it is not clear if he still holds shares in the company. The issues of propriety cannot disappear if he still retains pecuniary interest in Infosys.
These issues have to be debated on the floor of the parliament if we are to preserve our freedom. Increasingly our democracy has only form but no substance. The present UPA government has tabled the nuclear liability bill, which is inimical to the interests of its people. It has introduced the SEZ bill, which lowers labour standards and reduces the zone to Economic Slave Zones. We have a government that wire taps its own elected members and often uses investigative agencies for its narrow political ends. The IPL muckraking has only served to highlight the corruption in high places with charges of crony capitalism being an established fact. To gift away our freedom in the name of combating terrorism (which the UID promises) would be as foolish as curing malaria with a dose of syphilis. The time to act is now.
1 The Cult of Information- chapter 8- Teodore Roszak-University of California Press.
2 Quoted in The Cult of Information- Teodore Roszak
3 The Cult of Information-The surveillance machine- Teodore Roszak
4 Grave questions of Invasion of privacy- salon.com
5 Privacy and human rights-2003- Malaysia 6 Privacy International-PHR2006- Kingdom of Thailand.
C.R.Sridhar is a lawyer practising in Bangalore. His articles have appeared in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) and Monthly Review.