Thursday, March 3, 2011

84 - I don’t want my fingerprints taken by Nishant Shah

Friday, June 11, 2010
205 - I don’t want my fingerprints taken
I don’t want my fingerprints taken

Resisting biometric data
The census, or the collection of citizen data, has been a fundamental aspect of governance for most modern nations. It reminds us that modern governance has been wedded to information, even before it became fashionable to talk of the information age after the digital explosion. Different governments have sought mechanisms to gather and centralize citizen data to effectively administer public services, equity and justice. We have appointed the state as a repository of this data and also the trustee of privacy of this data.

However, lately, in India as well as other countries, there has been a growing anxiety about the role of the state as the arbiter of our privacy.

As public-private-partnerships become a desirable norm for many governments, the citizen data is available to private players who can exploit it for vested interest. In everyday life, this proliferation of citizen data can manifest itself from spam calls by product bearing companies that all of us experience on a regular basis to shattering violence inflicted on selective communities as was seen in Gujarat in the aftermath of the communal conflict in Godhra. While we have, reluctantly, invested our faith in the government in offering our personal data, it comes as a shock that the data has been compromised in the government’s partnerships with the market.

We have always known that even in its physical form, the citizen data often travels through insurance companies, private healthcare systems, financial databases and opens us to invasive surveillance by their operators. But the data is not immediately linked to our bodies. It is possible to deny the data related to our name, sex, occupation and class, or escape it, if necessary. The data resides in large databases, so huge that they fail to make sense to anybody who has to browse through the records. 


With the digital data gathering—the kinds that the Unique Identity Project (now known as Aadhar) uses—these safety nets were already weakened. In its digital form, the data suddenly became vulnerable to algorithmic searches and queries that allow for extremely customized and selective data to be made available to operators who are not accountable to us.

Moreover, the digital data can now travel easily across fault lines and previously accepted boundaries to mark citizens in ways that make survival precarious. The anxieties that have surrounded the Aadhar project have been fuelled by the lack of transparent accountability about citizen data usage.

These anxieties around digital data collection get aggravated by the introduction of the biometric protocols into the system. Even with digital data, there was a certain amount of autonomy and agency available to the citizen, to either morph or escape the data production that the system required. Like in earlier times, the relationship of the data was not with the individual citizen’s body but with the citizen as a representative of the larger population. There was no undeniable link that would bind the data on the physiological presence of the citizen.

Biometric system makes the citizen data personal—they tie it up with our inalienable self and body. The data once gathered offers no escape from the information webs, and the possibilities of abuse and violence in such a link between citizen data and the individual citizen’s presence are mind-boggling. We are talking about a dystopian sci-fi vision where each individual has a unique relationship through his/her unique identity with systems of justice, regulation, consumption and production. Everything from what you wear to what you eat to who you are friends with and what you do in your spare time can be tied to your physical body and self. This posits a fundamental threat to the human rights, dignity and security offered by the Constitution.

The census promises the safety of the citizen through anonymity. The biometric data collection violates this safety and suddenly makes us vulnerable to being single, unique and alone in our identity which can be exploited by anybody. The biometric fixity of our identity identifies us, marks us and ties us down to the mass abuse that any information system is always susceptible to. There will be no escape.

Nishant Shah is director (research) of the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru