Centre for Internet & Society

UID enrolment is in full swing, providing an official identification to millions of Indians, yet there are numerous unanswered questions. A public talk on UID was held at the Institute of Science, Bangalore on September 6, 2011. Usha Ramanathan, an independent law researcher on jurisprudence, poverty and rights, discussed the questions that plague the UID project and the veil of silence enveloping the answers.

Ms. Ramanathan began her presentation by describing the progress and evolution of the UID project. She stated three adjectives that reflect the target goal of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI): unique, ubiquitous and universal. She demonstrated how their initial objectives and claims have been drastically altered in three major ways.

First and foremost, the UIDAI claimed that enrolment is voluntary, not mandatory, and hence, inclusive. Yet, Nandan Nilekani has consistently maintained that other agencies may make it compulsory. UID is becoming ubiquitous and is a prerequisite for access to a wide variety of welfare schemes and services such as PDS, MGNREGS, banks, public health, etc. It is thus clear that this could actually exclude those who do not have a number or whose biometrics doesn't work. Therefore, this undermines the inclusive nature of the project.

Second, the UIDAI claimed that the UID would enable inclusive growth. Ms. Ramanathan expressed a serious concern surrounding the risk of exclusion. Instead of facilitating inclusion, around two to five per cent of the Indian population would be excluded from the current process of authentication and potentially from having a UID number, as they do not have viable biometric data.[1]  Physical or visual impairments such as corneal blindness, corneal scars, and malnourishment induced cataracts or ‘low-quality’ fingerprints from a lifetime of hard labour inhibit those from providing valid fingerprints or iris scans.[2]

Third, Ms. Ramanathan reiterated that the National Identification Authority India Bill prohibited sharing data, except by the consent of the resident, by a court order or for national security. However, UID information is being directly fed into the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) who will then provide information about people that is in 21 databases, to eleven security agencies, including the RAW and IB over which there is no superintendence or oversight.[3] She discussed the high likelihood of a breach of privacy as there are insufficient standards protecting an individual from unlawful invasion. Additionally, the UIDAI does not have mechanisms in place for an individual to be notified if there is a data breach. 

Who owns this project?

A very important question asked is, “Who owns this project?” Ms. Ramanathan stated that the convergence of information especially during the ‘de-duplication process clearly reflects the corporatization of the project. She also questioned the background of some of the technological companies involved. For instance, L-1 Identity Solutions is well known for its links with the CIA. Additionally, Accenture is on a Smart Borders project with US Homeland Security. She explained that ownership also plays into the feasibility and financial cost of the project. Furthermore, the UIDAI has not conducted a feasibility study on the technology or the financial cost of the project.

International Experience

Lastly, Ms. Ramanathan discussed the international experience of a universal identity system. In the United Kingdom, their universal system of identification was labelled as ‘intrusive bullying’ as well as ‘an assault on personal liberties’.  The United States and the United Kingdom both abandoned a universal identity system, as it was impractical, unjustified and dangerous.

Ms. Ramanathan raised many questions that evoked thought and discussion from the audience. She provided numerous examples of ambiguity, misconceptions and confusion surrounding the UID project.  She urged the audience to exercise their civil liberties or risk losing them. Lastly, she believed that an informed debate involving the UIDAI and the public is long overdue.

“The UIDAI must clarify misconception and provide detailed answers to crucial questions, as there is a lack of understanding within the general population about the UID. Therefore, the UIDAI and the Government of India must increase and ensure transparency of the UID project”, she added. 

Ms. Usha Ramanathan was speaking at an event organised by Concern, an IISc Student group. She was speaking in her personal capacity and the opinions reflected above are necessarily not those of CIS.


[1] Biometrics Design Standards for UID Applications (December 2009).

[2] Biometrics Design Standards for UID Applications (December 2009).

[3]Usha Ramanathan, The Myth of the Technology Fix, http://www.india-seminar.com/2011/617/617_usha_ramanathan.htm.



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