Compulsorily Mandatorily Voluntary

New Delhi

26 September 2018

Aadhaar (“foundation” in Hindi) is India’s unique identification programme. More than a billion people are registered for its 12-digit number, which is linked to biometric data (fingerprints, iris scans, photographs), personal data (names, addresses, phone numbers), income and tax details, as well as daily services (school registration, bank accounts, travel cards). It’s the largest state-run database in human history.

In the coming months, India’s Supreme Court will hear new petitions launched against Aadhaar by privacy advocates. Such petitions have been heard for years and this summer, the Supreme Court determined that a right to privacy is enshrined in the Indian constitution. Going forward, then, the question will be whether Aadhaar is in breach of this right. When the programme launched in 2009, there was little sense of its current scope, and registration wasn’t mandatory. Today, its ubiquity means it has become “compulsorily mandatorily voluntary”, to use congress MP and Aadhaar critic Jairam Ramesh’s phrase.

So what are the privacy issues? Well, there’s the mind-boggling scale of the scheme for a start. Having one billion users means that when errors happen, the impact is difficult to comprehend. This summer, for instance, the Aadhaar numbers of 120 million people were reportedly leaked from telecom company Reliance Jio. Similarly, a hacker managed to break into the government’s confidential Aadhaar-linked e-hospital database earlier this year, accessing the medical histories of millions. The slack security and hackability of Aadhaar sets it up for exploitation and abuse.

Aadhaar was rolled out with the stated aim of streamlining social welfare and combating corruption. But there are problems. Writing in The Atlantic, Namrata Kolachalam explains that “millions of people have missed out on government benefits because of Aadhaar. In some cases, that’s because those who are elderly or disabled are unable to walk to the distribution sites to verify their identities. Others, who do manual labor, find that their fingerprints are too weathered from years of physical exertion to scan correctly, and so are denied their food rations.” Activists also worry that Aadhaar could inadvertently perpetuate the caste system, with certain occupations being associated with Dalit (previously “untouchable”) status, and users’ employment histories potentially leading to discrimination from schools and recruiters. “Social mobility in India could become even more difficult,” writes Kolachalam. “So could hiding a pregnancy or a gender-reassignment surgery, or failing the eighth grade.”

Earlier this year, the World Bank called Aadhaar the “most sophisticated” system of its kind. Russian, Algerian, and Bangladeshi governments have already expressed an interest in it, and Microsoft has embedded it in Skype. It may well be coming to you in the not-so-distant future. But don’t worry – you’ve probably already handed over your most monetisable data to Facebook.