19 reasons why India’s biometrics project ought to be scrapped

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A citizen's biometric data is collected for his Aadhaar card. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The Indian government has been pushing through the world’s largest biometric identification program, Aadhaar, with Indians being forced to use it to avail themselves of basic services. From getting mobile phone connections to paying income tax, accessing subsidized food, health services and pensions, virtually everything now needs to be linked to an Aadhaar number, and verified and authenticated by biometrics.

The Supreme Court of India has been hearing a clutch of petitions against Aadhaar but the federal government is pushing through its hasty implementation. There is, however, growing evidence of problems with Aadhaar, both in its concept and implementation. Here are 19 reasons why the use of Aadhaar needs to be completely suspended until it has been suitably debated, the problems with it resolved, and its legality accepted by the Supreme Court.

1. Starvation: Aadhaar has been linked to that lifeline of impoverished Indians, the Public Distribution System (PDS). PDS shops have been denying subsidized rations to citizens if the beneficiary is unable to present in person, or where there are problems with the Aadhaar system, such as the biometric machine being out of order. At least eight deaths due to starvation have been reported thanks to the insistence of Aadhaar indentification before food is dipensed.

2. Denial of pensions: Hundreds of thousands of pensioners have suddenly stopped receiving their pensions because the banks say they haven’t linked their accounts and life certificates to Aadhaar. Pensioners, sometimes old and invalid, are having a hard time complying. Sometimes the biometric facilities don’t work, or are not available at banks, sometimes their fingerprints have faded away and hence don’t match the stored credentials.

3. Preventing access to emergency care: A hospital refused to treat a dying woman because her family wasn’t carrying her Aadhaar card during a medical emergency. Another woman was denied an abortion, forcing her to go to unqualified quacks.

4. Punishing the disabled: Aadhaar enrollment centers are denying disabled persons Aadhaar cards if they are unable to give both fingerprints and iris scans. The government has made Aadhar mandatory for disability pensions, punishing severely disabled people and leading to at least one suicide.

5. Causing banking fraud: Since Aadhaar authentication via mobile phone involves one-time passwords (OTPs), hackers have cloned SIM cards to extract people’s Aadhaar details and used OTPs to withdraw money from their bank accounts. There have been countless such cases, including one involving a college student who was able to swindle Rs 1.1 million (US$17,000).

6. Threatening the privacy of AIDS sufferers: The government believes AIDS patients will want subsidized or free treatment, even if they are not suffering, and has made Aadhaar compulsory for access to such care. Fearing social stigma, many HIV-AIDS patients are choosing to opt out of treatment rather than risk their privacy.

7. Inexplicable hurry: The government has been making Aadhaar mandatory for various services in violation of Supreme Court orders. Deadlines for various government initiatives have in fact been postponed on the Supreme Court’s urging, which makes the government’s urgency inexplicable.

8. Biometrics not tamper-proof: Critics say there are better means of foolproof identification than biometrics, which are prone to change. As many elderly will attest, fingerprints can change or even fade away with age. Irises can also be deformed, rendering their Aadhaar linkage invalid.

9. Inadequate infrastructure: Large swathes of India do not have access to the internet, mobile networks or reliable electricity supplies. The government has admitted that 55,000 villages don’t have mobile connectivity. To force people to use technology for basic identification without the necessary infrastructure is to put the cart before the horse.

10. Duplication: The government could not substantiate its claims of having used Aadhaar to weed out fake and duplicate ration cards or beneficiaries of cooking-gas subsidies. In many instances, those weeded out for other reasons and through other means are being wrongly projected as achievements of Aadhaar.

11. Open to abuse: There have been many cases of people managing to obtain two Aadhaar cards. Such instances reveal claims of Aadhaar being the ultimate means of weeding out fakes and duplicates to be mere fantasy. When asked under the Right To Information Act about how many people had managed to get obtain Aadhaar numbers, the government claimed that divulging such information would weaken national security.

12. Fake claims: The Indian government forced many give up fake claims for LPG subsidies without use of biometric identification. It is possible to weed out fakes and duplicates, reduce corruption and improve efficiency through enforcing incentives and disincentives.

13. Risks to national security: It is clear that Aadhaar comes with the risk of identity theft, since the technology is unreliable. Aadhaar has, as one report put it, become a “trump card for online fraudsters.

14. Aadhaar may yet be struck down: After years of forcing citizens to get Aadhaar without a law backing its enforcement, the government finally passed one. But the Supreme Court is examining the validity of this law after it was wrongly passed as a ‘Money Bill’ even though it did not relate to the government’s finances. The government did so because money bills don’t require the assent of the upper house, which had serious reservations about the law.

15. State surveillance: Can the government be trusted not to use Aadhaar for mass surveillance? What are the safeguards in place? The government hasn’t been able to satisfy people on this count. Here’s Edward Snowden on Aadhaar: “It is the natural tendency of government to desire perfect records of private lives…. the result is abuse.” Section 32 of the Act allows the government to use any information on the grounds of “national security.”

16. Violating privacy: In a country that does not have privacy laws, fears over Aadhaar compromising privacy are valid. The use of a centralized database that knows exactly what any citizen is up to makes citizens’ privacy vulnerable to state and non-state actors.

17. Database compromised: It is bad enough that government institutions have made some people’s Aadhaar data public on their website, but one journalist even managed to buy access to the database. It turns out that thousands of people may have been able to illegally access it already.

18. Misuse by private companies: The Aadhaar-based authentication system was allegedly misused by mobile company Airtel, while disbursing government subsidies. Airtel allegedly failed to transfer Rs 1.9 billion into the existing bank accounts of beneficiaries. Instead, they routed it to Airtel Payments Bank e-accounts, which were opened without the consent of the beneficiaries. The use of Aadhaar by private companies opens it up to all kinds of potential misuse.

19. Most countries don’t use mass biometric identification: The UK scrapped its biometric identification plan in 2010 and destroyed the associated database. The Social Security Number in the US is not biometric and is not used for basic services such as phones and credit cards that can lead to mass surveillance and breach of privacy. If countries like Germany can effectively deliver public services without biometric identification, why can’t India

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