Centre for Internet & Society

On March 12, the Lok Sabha passed the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, paving the way for giving legal status to Aadhaar, a 12-digit unique identification number generated after collecting biometric and other details of an Indian resident.

Sahil Makkar on behalf of Business Standard interviewed Sunil Abraham. The article was published on March 12, 2016.

The government intends to use Aadhaar to roll out more subsidy schemes and allay privacy concerns. However, activists are not convinced. Sunil Abraham, executive director of Bengaluru based-research organisation The Centre for Internet & Society, tells Sahil Makkar that the concept of Aadhaar is principally flawed and it doesn't substantially help in plugging leakages in government schemes. Edited excerpts:

What is your position on Aadhaar and the UIDAI Bill?

What technology has broken cannot be fixed by the law. Aadhaar is a broken technology; it is surveillance technology disguised as developmental intervention that identifies people without their consent and authenticates transactions on their behalf. The architecture is a disaster from the security perspective and there is no recourse in law for citizens whose rights have been infringed. The other objection should be to the subtitle of the Bill that mentions "services": it is unclear whether Aadhaar is to be provided to the residents or the citizens. A bulk of the government services is meant for citizens.

What are the repercussions of this "broken technology"?

Consent happens without conscious cooperation during the authentication process of getting access to a subsidy or a service. Also, the person providing the service is holding a biometric reader and he may say the device is not working and hence, refuse the subsidy. Yet the database will reflect that the subsidy has been availed of because authentication has already been completed. So you have to accept what the person is saying because only that person and the UIDAI have access to the information. Aadhaar makes the citizen transparent to the state but makes the state completely opaque and unaccountable to its citizens.

Will the beneficiary not receive a message about the transaction?

That will only happen when the banks are involved. At the subsidised ration shop the beneficiary will get nothing. The world over security professionals don't trust biometric-based authentication, relying rather on other revocable authentication factors. It is irrevocable if the biometric details are compromised. Instead, writable smart cards could be used to record details of government officers on the cards of beneficiaries and make both the state and the resident transparent to each other.

Hasn't the National Population Register under the Ministry of Home Affairs been advocating the use of smart cards?

In this case biometrics should be used only to link the individual to the smart card. Biometric information should be stored on smart cards and under no circumstances should there be a central repository of biometrics at one place. Maintaining a central database is akin to getting the keys of every house in Delhi and storing them at a central police station. The chances of getting a central database compromised depend on the nature of information stored in it. For the sake of security one can't create a honey pot to be attacked by many. The internet is secure because it doesn't have a central database. The other difference is that faking biometrics is much easier than faking smart cards.

So your principle opposition is to the setting up of a central repository of biometrics?

I am also opposed to the use of biometrics for identification and authentication; this is nothing but surveillance. It is very easy to capture iris data of any individual with the use of next generation cameras. Imagine a situation when the police is secretly capturing the iris data of protesters and then identifying them through their biometric records.

But if the security agencies are able to identify those who create law and order problems, what is the hitch?

It is exactly the same argument that Apple is giving while refusing back-door entry to intelligence and investigating agencies. Once you build surveillance capacity for good governance, it may be misused by a repressive government, a rogue corporation or by criminals. Fear of this type of surveillance will deter people from holding any protest.

Doesn't the Aadhaar or the UIDAI conform to safety and security provisions in the IT Act?

The standards in our IT Act are woefully inadequate in comparison to European regulators and courts. If it adhered to the highest standards, the European privacy commissioner and data protection authorities would have given India adequacy status. The second problem is that the current IT Act doesn't apply to the government. If the government holds your data, it is under no obligation to protect your rights.

You have been part of the Justice A P Shah Committee on privacy. How important is it to have a separate privacy law in the present context?

It is not only important for the purpose of safeguarding human rights, but also to protect the competitiveness of our BPO, ITeS and KPO sectors. We need a data protection law that is compliant with European Data Protection Regulation.

How will such a law help a common man whose data have been compromised?

It will provide clarity to an individual about where he or she stands with regard to privacy. It is strange that the government took diametrically opposite stands in two cases related to privacy in the Supreme Court. When some activists demanded that the UIDAI be scrapped, the government argued before the court that there was no Constitutional right to privacy. When the police asked for the biometric records from the UIDAI, the same government argued there was a right to privacy and that it couldn't divulge the details to the police. The government is not speaking in the same voice; even courts are not speaking in the same voice, because there have been conflicting judgements. So the proposed law will provide clarity on privacy and people will be able to seek compensation under it.

At the same time it cannot be denied that Aadhaar can plug leakages and save hundreds and thousands of rupees for the exchequer....

Aadhaar is only answering two questions: Is this particular biometric unique (enrolment) and does it match the template in the database? If you bring a Bangladeshi into the system, it will answer both the questions in the affirmative. The Aadhaar only eliminates the possibility of one person receiving the benefits twice. At the same time it is very easy to put a ghost beneficiary back into the system. If Aadhaar has to work, we need a publicly visible auditable trail of subsidy moving from Delhi to the villages. That will eliminate corruption in the supply chain.

Isn't it difficult for a large number of ghost beneficiaries to get into the system?

There is no way to check whether a genuine or a ghost beneficiary has been removed from the list. It is not a foolproof system because no one is vouching for anybody. In the current system it is difficult to find out who created this ghost beneficiary. Nobody loses a job for creating a ghost; in fact, here everyone has an incentive.

If there are problems with the UIDAI system, why is the government upbeat about it?

As techno-utopians our government wants technology to answer everything and solve all our problems. If anything goes wrong, it can easily be blamed on technology.