The Aadhaar project, just as its failed counterpart in the U.K., stands on a platform of myths. India needs a mass campaign to expose these myths.

Two countries. Two pet projects of the respective Prime Ministers. Unmistakable parallels in the discourse. “The case for ID cards is a case not about liberty, but about the modern world,” wrote Tony Blair in November 2006, as he was mobilising support for his Identity Cards Bill, 2004. “Aadhaar…is symbolic of the new and modern India,” said Manmohan Singh in September 2010, as he distributed the first Aadhaar number in Nandurbar. “What we are trying to do with identity cards is make use of the modern technology,” said Mr. Blair. “Aadhaar project would use today's latest and modern technology,” said Dr. Singh. The similarities are endless.

Mr. Blair's celebrated push for identity cards ended in a political disaster for Labour. The British people resisted the project for over five years. Finally, the Cameron government scrapped the Identity Cards Act in 2010, thus abolishing identity cards and plans for a National Identity Register. On the other hand, India is enthusiastically pushing the Aadhaar, or unique identity (UID), project. The UID project has been integrated with the Home Ministry's National Population Register (NPR). The “National Identification Authority of India Bill” has been tabled in Parliament. Globally, observers of identity policies are watching if India learns anything from the “modern” world.

The experience with identity cards in the United Kingdom tells us that Mr. Blair's marketing of the scheme was from a platform of myths. First, he stated that enrolment for cards would be “voluntary”. Second, he argued that the card would reduce leakages from the National Health System and other entitlement programmes; David Blunkett even called it not an “identity card,” but an “entitlement card.” Third, Mr. Blair argued that the card would protect citizens from “terrorism” and “identity fraud.” For this, the biometric technology was projected as infallible.

All these claims were questioned by scholarly and public opinion. A meticulous report from the London School of Economics examined each claim and rejected them (see “High-cost, High-risk,” Frontline, August 14, 2009). This report argued that the government was making the card compulsory across such a wide range of schemes that it would, de facto, become compulsory. It also argued that the card would not end identity fraud in entitlement schemes. The reason: biometrics was not a reliable method of de-duplication.

The Indian discourse around Aadhaar is remarkably similar. Almost identical arguments are forwarded in support of the project to provide a population of over one billion people with UID numbers. I argue that Aadhaar, just as its failed counterpart in the U.K., is promoted from a platform of myths. Here, there is space for three big myths only.

Myth 1: Aadhaar number is not mandatory.

This is wrong; Aadhaar has stealthily been made mandatory. Aadhaar is explicitly linked to the preparation of the NPR. The Census of India website notes that “data collected in the NPR will be subjected to de-duplication by the UIDAI [Unique Identification Authority of India]. After de-duplication, the UIDAI will issue a UID Number. This UID Number will be part of the NPR and the NPR Cards will bear this UID Number.”

The NPR is the creation of an amendment in 2003 to the Citizenship Act of 1955. As per Rule 3(3) in the Citizenship Rules of 2003, information on every citizen in the National Register of Indian Citizens should compulsorily have his/her “National Identity Number.” Again, Rule 7(3) states that “it shall be the responsibility of every Citizen to register once with the Local Registrar of Citizen Registration and to provide correct individual particulars.” Still further, Rule 17 states that “any violation of provisions of rules 5, 7, 8, 10, 11 and 14 shall be punishable with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees.”

The conclusion is simple: Aadhaar has been made compulsory, even before passing the Bill concerned in Parliament. Under the project's guise, the State is coercing individuals to part with personal information; this coercion comes with a threat of punishment.

Myth 2: Aadhaar is just like the social security number (SSN) in the United States.

There is a world of difference between the SSN and Aadhaar. The SSN was introduced in the U.S. in 1936 to facilitate provision of social security benefits. A defining feature of SSN is that it is circumscribed by the Privacy Act of 1974. This Act states that “it shall be unlawful for any…government agency to deny to any individual any right, benefit, or privilege provided by law because of such individual's refusal to disclose his social security account number.” Further, federal agencies have to provide notice to, and obtain consent from, individuals before disclosing their SSNs to third parties.

The SSN was never conceived as an identity document. However, in the 2000s, SSN began to be used widely for proving one's identity at different delivery/access points. As a result, SSNs of individuals were exposed to a wide array of private players, which identity thieves used to access bank accounts, credit accounts, utilities records and other sources of personal information. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office noted that “over a 1-year period, nearly 10 million people — or 4.6 per cent of the adult U.S. population — discovered that they were victims of some form of identity theft, translating into estimated losses exceeding $50 billion.”

Following public outcry, the President appointed a Task Force on Identity Theft in 2007. Acting on its report, the President notified a plan: “Combating Identity Theft: A Strategic Plan.” This plan directed all government offices to “eliminate unnecessary uses of SSNs” and reduction and, where possible, elimination of the need to use SSN to identify individuals. It's quite the contrary in India. According to Nandan Nilekani, Aadhaar number would become “ubiquitous”; he has even advised people to “tattoo it somewhere,” lest they forget it!

Myth 3: Identity theft can be eliminated using biometrics.

There is consensus among scientists and legal experts regarding the limitations of biometrics in proving identity. First, no accurate information exists on whether the errors of matching fingerprints are negligible or non-existent. A small percentage of users would always be either falsely matched or not matched at all against the database.

Second, errors of matching would stand significantly amplified in countries like India. A report from 4G Identity Solutions, contracted by UIDAI for supply of biometric devices, notes that:

“It is estimated that approximately five per cent of any population has unreadable fingerprints, either due to scars or aging or illegible prints. In the Indian environment, experience has shown that the failure to enrol is as high as 15 per cent due to the prevalence of a huge population dependent on manual labour.”

A 15 per cent failure rate would mean the exclusion of over 200 million people. If fingerprint readers are installed at Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) work sites and ration shops, and employment or purchases made contingent on correct authentication, about 200 million persons would remain permanently excluded from accessing such schemes.

The report of the UIDAI's “Biometrics Standards Committee” actually accepts these concerns as real. Its report notes that “fingerprint quality, the most important variable for determining de-duplication accuracy, has not been studied in depth in the Indian context.” However, this critical limitation of the technology has not prevented the government from leaping into the dark with this project, one whose cost would exceed Rs.50,000 crore.

It is said that the greatest enemy of truth is not the lie, but the myth. A democratic government should not undertake a project of the magnitude of Aadhaar from a platform of myths. The lesson from the U.K. experience is that myths perpetrated by governments can be exposed through consistent public campaigns. India direly needs a mass campaign that would expose the myths behind the Aadhaar project.

(R. Ramakumar is Associate Professor with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.)

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