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Master Card: The UID Faces Opposition

Why is the opposition to the UID scheme growing?

Published: Jan 12, 2011 06:47:03 AM IST
Updated: Jan 12, 2011 03:58:15 PM IST
Master Card: The UID Faces Opposition
Image: Vikas Khot

The unique identity (UID) numbers being issued with much fanfare have no legal sanctity. This may surprise many who casually know about the UID scheme and believe it represents a progressive and transparent new India.

The problem is, the Bill which proposes setting up an Authority mandated to issue such numbers was introduced in Parliament only in December 2010. This is yet to even face the routine Standing Committee scrutiny.

In the last three months, there has been opposition to the UID scheme. Leading the resistance are eminent academics and social activists, Jean Dreze and Aruna Roy. Both are members of the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi.

What’s the Fuss About?
One of the main criticisms is the “unwarranted” hurry with which it has been put in motion.

“I don’t know how it has been established that UID is inevitable. Where was the debate regarding this?” asks Gopal Krishna, member of the Citizens Forum of Civil Liberties.

He points out that there has been no feasibility report or cost benefit analysis of the project in the public domain. Krishna’s main concern is the invasion of an individual’s privacy.

“The UID scheme will soon prove to be the key that leads to unifying many different databases and give the government agencies overwhelming powers of surveillance,” he says. Krishna asserts that the UID number will in time become the single common factor between various databases of a single person, allowing someone with malicious intent to compile a unified list.

The assertion that UID is “voluntary” is misleading, since in time it will become necessary to have a UID number if one wants to avail any service. Observers fear that such easy access with the government could lead to dangerous consequences. “In a situation like the Gujarat riots, profiling, and targeting a minority community could become extremely easy,” claims A.P. Shah, former chief justice of Madras and Delhi High Courts. Master Card: The UID Faces Opposition

There are not enough laws that protect personal data from being abused.

People are questioning whether biometric technology is foolproof. In fact, even the Biometric Standards Committee of UIDAI looked unsure of it in the final analysis, stating: “First, retaining efficacy while scaling the database size from fifty million to a billion has not been adequately analysed. Second, fingerprint quality, the most important variable for determining de-duplication accuracy, has not been studied in depth in the Indian context.”

Others like Reetika Khera from the Centre for Development Economics, say that the government is misleading the people into believing that UID will provide solutions to the distortions in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) Scheme and the Public Distribution System.

“The UIDAI’s [Unique Identification Authority of India’s] claims are bloated. There are almost no benefits of having a UID number in the functioning of NREGA and marginal benefits [like stamping out bogus ration cards] in PDS,” she says. The loopholes in these can be plugged by widespread computerisation and efficient monitoring, like exhibited in Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh. Yet, the government has chosen to focus on weeding out bogus cards by ensuring de-duplication.

According to Khera, UID seems to be a way to allow direct cash transfers a backdoor entry, again without debate. Actually, providing direct subsidy to the needy has been debated for over a decade now, but it has failed to take off due to lack of political support.

The Flip Side
The UIDAI did not respond to a detailed questionnaire, yet in a brief chat earlier, R.S. Sharma, mission director, explained that UIDAI has a specific mandate given to it by the union cabinet, to set up a system for the unique identification and authentication of each person residing in the country.

Responding to apprehensions raised by activists, Sharma said: “UID is an enabling service delivery platform. How fast various departments and entities, both at central and state level in the governments will leverage this platform for service delivery will depend on these departments and entities.” He refuted that UID is not useful in schemes like NREGA: “UID, in conjunction with other pieces like business correspondents, mirco-ATMs and telecom connectivity, would enable delivery of banking services to the rural population. People would thus be able to make basic banking transactions through their neighborhood kirana stores , functioning as BC. This will obviate the need for poor people like MNREGA workers, to cover long distances to withdraw cash from their bank accounts and lose a day’s salary in the bargain too.”

Our Take
It is instructive to look at developments in the UK and the US. Both tried to put in place a similar system. Last month, the UK repealed the Identity Card Act of 2006 which provided for identity cards linked to a National Identity Register. The Real ID Act of 2005 in the US failed to take off — most states refused to go along with it since it violated privacy. The Act proposed to use driver’s license-based ID cards to be monitored through computers.

In sum, it would be prudent if the government would focus on having a frank debate on the implications of UID and the changes required in the data protection regime to safeguard privacy and ensure smooth adoption of the scheme.

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(This story appears in the 14 January, 2011 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Dr.a.jagadeesh

    Excellent article. Sometimes High tech has its own limitations when dealing with social problems. Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    on Oct 8, 2013
  • Abcd

    Technically biometrics as an id factor, is deeply flawed in concept. This stems from a fundamental requirement of any id system - ability to withdraw a compromised authenticating factor. If your email password is compromised you can reset it to a new one Try doing that with your fingers and eyes. By the way both are spoofable rather easily. Operational aspects, even in small homogeneous groups have been shown to have inherent problems. There has NEVER been a study on large heterogeneous populations. Further even the studies on small groups, in well controlled enrollment and verification environments, shows gaping holes. Even if the environment were to be better than theses studies, there would be humongous number of false negatives. This is borne out by the recent Mid-day article where many women who work as house helps - in amchi Mumbai - were sent back as their fingerprints cannot be recorded. This at the first stage and in all probability the best setup. We have not even got around to discussing fakes and systemic problems in the process or checking out our rural populace. Finally one should note that locking up all citizens in a surveillance net and placing them for investigation by the very same crooks who are supposed to be kept out, reeks of an extreme feudal mentality. Dont want to get mugged, dont step into the street. Dont want to get raped, dont go out at night. Ya these are statements by government officials. How about these officials being made to walk from the Ghatkopar station after the last train, to their home in Pantnagar. We would ofcourse arm them with a UID number, which they can use for defense - magic mantra like. Maybe they can show their finger too, so that a would be mugger flees in fright. "You have nothing to hide if you are not illegal" is a facile proposition born out of ignorance of both, what constitutes privacy and the extent to which a government has control over it's citizens. People who propose the "nothingtohide" argument should speak to the victims of untouchability, rape, illegal arrests, child trafficking etc. and get themselves a real education. Guys dont believe the crap dished out by the UIDAI - it is worse than lies, damned lies and statistics all put together.

    on Jan 15, 2011
  • Notouid

    Revealing the motive of the UID Number, Captain Raghu Raman, Chief Executive Officer, National Intelligence Grid under Union Home Ministry in his paper titled 'A NATION OF NUMB PEOPLE' says, "If the commercial czars don't begin protecting their empires now, they may find the lines of control cutting across those very empires." This proposed NIAI Bill must be looked at along with other Bills in the offing such as Draft Land Titling Bill, 2010, Draft Paper on Privacy Bill, 2010, Draft DNA Profiling Act, 2007 and Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations (PIII) for a National Knowledge Network. Besides this National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid), meant to integrate existing 21 databases with Central and state government agencies and other organisations, and National Population Register (which is quite different from Census) will end up undertaking surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting of Indian residents. Admittedly, the Draft Privacy Bill states, "There is no data protection statute in the country." On UID Number, the Draft Paper on Privacy Bill states, "Data privacy and the need to protect personal information is almost never a concern when data is stored in a decentralized manner. Quite menacingly, the Draft Paper on Privacy Bill asserts, "Once this (UID) happens, the separation of data that currently exists between multiple databases will vanish."

    on Jan 14, 2011
  • Kinggurudev

    The statement of concern issued by the eminent citizens including former judges, jurists, educationists stated, "UIDAI has been constituted on the basis of a GoI (Government of India) notification and there is a fundamental risk to civil liberties"

    on Jan 14, 2011
  • Mediavigil

    It admitted that "India will be the first country (in the world) to implement a biometric-based unique ID system for its residents on a national scale." Neither the Prime Minister nor the Planning Commission has taken cognizance of abandonment of such UID Number scheme in countries like the US, Australia and now in the UK. In the UK, their Home Secretary abandoned the project because it considered it `intrusive bullying' by the state, and that the government intended to be the `servant' of the people, and not their `master'. In the late 1990s, the Supreme Court of Philippines struck down the President's Executive Order A.O 308 which instituted a biometric based national ID system calling it unconstitutional on two grounds: the overreach of the executive over the legislative powers of the congress and invasion of privacy. The same is applicable in India.

    on Jan 14, 2011
  • Anshul

    UID is a progressive step and all it's criticism are without merit. US too has a Social Security Number (SSN) system and UID is being devised on those lines. We are a 1 billion population - for it's effective governance, for crime control and for better tracking UID is something what government agencies require. And as for privacy concerns - what is that general public has that they want to hide ?. Why does people have to have any problem if Security agency browse thru their mobile records or health reports or even banking transactions. If it's for increasing security of the country - this is no concern. Yeah corrupt Politicians, Land mafias, bollywood folks with connections to underworld have much to fear and they are the ones who do not want UID or any similar system to be implemented in the country.

    on Jan 13, 2011
  • Why Uid Is Wrong In Other\'s View

    I read this article and it is really a good for India but with lots of changes. We understand if UID will come in full power in India it can stop corruption, misusing of power, improve PDS system and there is lots of other benefits which we can get it like RTA. I checked one website related to UID www uidiacards com and according to that Yes through UID we can bring the changes in India. But for that we have to come together and keep far to Politicians and Bureaucrats to make it much better.

    on Jan 12, 2011
  • Sam

    Any thing in the world can be looked at pessimistically and this article is one such. The author did not try to look at the information available and try to educate himself. There are some people actively engaged in spreading mis-information about cost of the project, possible capability for government and possible mis-use of information. There is a difference between aadhaar project and privacy. There is a different between aadhaar project and how benefits are delivered. Aadhaar helps to provide easy access for poor and migrant people to ration card and other government benefits and gives them an identity with out hassles. The so called civil rights people are shouting at the wrong place, they should be focusing on better privacy laws and controlling access to aadhaar information. Opposing aadhaar as a whole is unsubstantiated and just plan obstructive.

    on Jan 12, 2011
    • Uj

      Someone rightly said, "half knowledge is a dangerous thing". People who are crying hoarse over the potential benefits of UID would be better off if they try to understand the benefits of such a scheme and also look at the history of biometrics technology which is now very mature. As someone rightly pointed out, US has been using SSN no. which can provide any detail of that person - health records or his credit rating and so on. UID has promised to make sure not to include any such data or racial profiling data. For people who are not aware, biometrics is used at the borders of almost every developed country. In US and Japan, you cannot enter the country without giving your fingerprints. FBI and Interpol have databases for fingerprint, photos and other details but it is for lawbreakers, criminals and offenders to fear but for the normal citizen this ensures security. In US, parents are enrolling their children's fingerprints, so that they can be tracked safely in case of kidnapping or some foul happening. Look at the positive side of the story - nothing ever is or will be flawless but within those constraints, if the system can provide real benefits, then it has passed the test.

      on Feb 3, 2011