Thursday, March 3, 2011

92 - Aadhaar and Privacy-Part 1& 2 by Ramdass Keshavamurthy Source- Money Life

Aadhaar and Privacy-Part 1 & 2  by Ramdass Keshavamurthy
June 21, 2010 01:07 PM

Two of the major issues concerning Aadhaar revolve around the benefits of having an identity and the risks of losing privacy. This is the first part of a two-part series

As the implementation of Aadhaar, formally known as UID, gathers steam with the project entering the prototype implementation stage, we have started hearing dissenting voices questioning the need for such an intrusive ID, incurring a lot of public money. Questions are also being asked about the constitutionality of such an exercise. While it is easy to dismiss such objections as being alarmist, it is important to go into some of the issues being raised by the critics, especially in the context of the exaggerated claims of the proponents of Aadhaar.

The ideas around Aadhaar being not new, it is pertinent to review the status of similar schemes in other countries. In the USA, the Social Security Number, initially conceived as a number to track individuals in social security programs, has been in use for more than 50 years. A recent proposal by some US senators to introduce biometric Social Security cards has run into stiff opposition by privacy advocates and civil-society groups. The UK government had introduced a similar biometric national ID scheme some time back. The new government plans to scrap the biometric national ID scheme within 100 days, in addition to destroying all the biometric data that was collected. The exercise was deemed wasteful, bureaucratic and intrusive.

In India, there have been various attempts for the creation of a national ID for a decade or more. However, the issue gathered momentum with the reinvention of the same in the form of UID, which has recently been rechristened as Aadhaar.

Aadhaar came into public consciousness after the UIDAI was established and the head of a corporate firm roped in as the chairman of the project. Thereafter, there were a series of seminars, analogous to marketing campaigns, advocating the positive benefits of Aadhaar. Some of the champions of UID, being influenced by notions in the IT world, looked at Aadhaar as a panacea for all ills surrounding public service delivery. The chairperson of UIDAI is reported to have even gone to the extent of saying that“The slogan of bijli, sadak, pani” is pass√©; 'virtual things' like UID number, bank account and mobile phone numbers are the in-thing.” This was almost to indicate the dawn of a new era with different priorities, making the earlier preoccupations irrelevant. Can anything be further from the truth than this?

One of the reasons for carrying this perception is that Aadhaar, though conceived at the government level, is currently championed by technocrats turned bureaucrats. These technocrats, who are significantly influenced by the products and processing in the IT world,    want to replicate the same in the public sphere, often ignoring the complex realities of the real world. While the making of the biometric data and its management by itself has a significant technological content, its impact goes far beyond it as it covers the ordinary citizen and the wide social sector. Focusing too much on technology, the social and privacy issues were probably overlooked at the infancy. While the UIDAI tried to address some of these concerns later through seminars, they were not comprehensive enough to gather diverse public opinion. Even though the initial mandate of UIDAI was to focus on technology associated with biometric data, the casual utterances of key representatives, without adequate awareness of privacy issues, went beyond that to advocate the wider adoption of UID in both public and private spheres.

Two of the major issues concerning Aadhaar revolve around the benefits of having an identity and the risks of losing privacy. Proponents of the benefits are of the opinion that a lot of social welfare programmers intended for the poor do not reach them or are denied to them because of the issues surrounding identity. By fixing the issue of identity using Aadhaar, inefficiencies and irregularities surrounding the delivery and management of social services would be resolved.

This is a claim disputed by most of the social scientists/activists who feel that to be a gross over-simplification of the reasons for failures of social welfare schemes.  For example, in most of the social welfare programmes where multiple agencies are involved, fixing individual identity does not necessarily stop corruption and pilferage.

Before commenting on the second issue surrounding privacy, it is important to understand what Aadhaar stands for. Aadhaar is a 12-digit ID which is unique to any individual in the country (It is 16 digits, but only 12 digits are relevant for identification). Behind Aadhaar is biometric data, that uniquely identifies an individual. As of now, biometric data includes digital data of the face, all ten fingerprints and iris scan. Aadhaar also includes other general details like name, age, sex etc.

(The author is a Bengaluru-based technology consultant)

Part 2
While the UIDAI can try to address the issues surrounding privacy concerning the storage and access of data by resorting to latest technologies, none of these that are currently available are foolproof. This is the second and concluding part of a two-part series

Most of the privacy debates around Aadhaar revolve around collection, storage and management of such vast amounts of private data concerning the citizens at one or more places and its usage. Never in the history of our country (probably for that matter in any country) has there been a situation wherein the entire private data of its citizens is stored and located at one place (Central ID Data Repository). While the UIDAI can try to address the issues surrounding privacy concerning the storage and access of data by resorting to latest technologies, none of these that are currently available are foolproof. There are sufficient incidents of hackers having broken into both public and private networks and sites. Given the vulnerability of such data to attacks, what is to done if an individual's biometric data is stolen? While data like the address or phone number can be easily be changed after being stolen, the biometric details of an individual can never be changed. Your fingerprint remains your fingerprint! The only option is to completely rebuild an alternative identity for the person whose data has been stolen, which would be practically impossible. On similar lines, doubts have been expressed about the robustness of the methods available for matching biometric information for identification which can result in false positives/negatives.

Aside from the direct issues related to technology is the issue of how the data is going to be used. While the private biometric data which is part of Aadhaar can be made secure to the extent technologically feasible, the same cannot be said about the derived uses of Aadhaar, by both private and public agencies. Though the enrollment to Aadhaar is currently optional, over time there would be an indirect compulsion to have one, as more and more services get tied into it. Casual use of Aadhaar for most of the transactions like bank, insurance etc., would indirectly facilitate linking of an individual's information, thus making profiling easy.   Viewed in this context, the interest shown by some private agencies in using Aadhaar and its infrastructure as part of their process only confirms the suspicion of the critics. To propose a revenue model based on the usage of Aadhaar, as is being currently contemplated, would only broaden its usage, thus facilitating misuse.

Coming to the biometric data itself, some questions are being asked about the extent of the data collected and its possible misuse. Is it necessary to collect so much biometric data for identification purposes? Is it possible that such private data can be misused, given the fact that it is centralised? Consider a scenario in which a fingerprint is left behind by an individual at a location, which is fairly common, this could suddenly link him to an event he is not at all concerned with.

 Unfortunately, a fingerprint does not have time signature to indicate when the impression was made! Given the scope for such misinterpretations, how appropriate is it to use fingerprints in biometric data? If identity is the sole issue, is it better to stick to some non-traceable markers like iris scan etc., which are less likely to be misused?

The last issue is concerned with the Aadhaar enrollment process itself. While enrolling people for Aadhaar, in addition to informing them about the benefits, are they being informed about the possible risks related to privacy and the need to be cautious in its use? A recent article in a leading national magazine has pointed out some grave misconceptions in people who have enrolled for the scheme in a village in Karnataka. Given such a possibility, one pertinent question that is being asked by activists is instead of putting poor/ignorant people through the process first, why not start with the rich and the urban population which can understand the issues better? Possibly one could start with an IT company itself! Enrolling people without adequately educating them about both the benefits and risks is akin to conducting clinical trials on patients with the promise of a possible cure without informing them about inherent risks.

In conclusion, given the diverse opinions on this issue, is there a middle ground possible, considering the fact there might a need for proper identity under some circumstances? Perhaps yes, if we can look at some via media alternatives. One way is to restrict the amount  of biometric data collected and instead focus on the improvements in the process adopted for  collection and verification of traditional data (as is done currently for many IDs). Another aspect is to find alternatives to centralised storage of the biometric data. One possible solution is to keep biometric data private on a card (along the lines being suggested in the US). The system would then authenticate only the genuineness of the card by connecting to a central server, whereas the biometric information is authenticated by reading from the card locally. This, though inconvenient when a card is lost, would significantly address some privacy concerns. These technological solutions should be followed by legislation restricting the use of Aadhaar for the barest minimum purposes in addition to prohibiting any illegitimate collection, storage and use. All this would require the openness of UIDAI to acknowledge and engage with various groups to try to find a common meeting ground, instead of being fixed on the approaches.

(The author is a Bengaluru-based technology consultant)