Aadhaar debate: Govt expects blind trust from justifiably wary citizens
How seriously should we take government's claims that the most sensitive, crucial and identifiable data of a billion-plus Indians are 'safe' and won't fall prey to identity or financial thefts?
There are just two basic issues at the heart of the wildly confusing debate over Aadhaar. One, can the government be trusted when it says the 12-digit unique identification number is a tool for civic empowerment and rule-based society? Two, how secure is our biometric and demographic data? A related question — how seriously should we take government's claims that the most sensitive, crucial and identifiable data of a billion-plus Indians are "safe" and won't fall prey to identity or financial thefts?
Ergo, the first issue is one of privacy and the second is that of security. Let's explore the issues one by one.
At its very basic, privacy is a trust issue. Activists, academics, lawyers and a section of the media and civil society argue that under the guise of empowerment, the government is planning to play Big Brother with data. They say Aadhaar will expose us to large-scale snooping from security agencies.
According to critics, from being an optional identification tool aimed at providing welfare benefits, Aadhaar's rapid metastasis into a mandatory, all-pervading legislative mechanism is a malignant development for citizens. The fear is that through Aadhaar, the foundation is being installed of a surveillance state that will have complete control over our lives. In short, the government cannot be trusted even if it professes to work for greater, common good. Why?
Civil society suspicion has been raised by the way successive governments have tried to usher in Aadhaar through the backdoor. The project, which was launched under UPA, saw rapid strides under the NDA government and both regimes adopted extra-legal steps to push it through. The trust between government and civil society over Aadhaar was further bruised by the way the NDA government has tried to incrementally expand the parameters of Aadhaar while arguing in Supreme Court that Constitution does not guarantee its citizens the right to privacy.
While defending the validity of Aadhaar in the apex court, attorney general Mukul Rohatgi had argued before a three-judge Bench in July 2015 that no less than a "nine-judge Bench is required" to settle whether or not right to privacy is a fundamental right because an eight-judge bench had ruled in 1954 that it was not. According to a report carried in The Indian Express, "Rohtagi also read out from another SC judgment by a six-judge bench in 1963, holding that 'the right of privacy is not a guaranteed right under our Constitution'."
From this point onwards, Aadhaar became a fierce bone of confrontation between civil society and the government which tried every trick in the book to push through contentious clauses. On 11 March, the government introduced Aadhaar Bill in Lok Sabha as a money bill which made Rajya Sabha's subsequent amendments redundant. On 16 March, the NDA government used the provisions of a 'money bill' to override Rajya Sabha's objections and passed Aadhaar Bill it in its original form.
This muscling through of a Bill which has such sweeping powers over our lives raised justifiable hackles. Even if, for argument's sake, we contend that the government's motives are benevolent and aimed at rooting out endemic corruption, the lack of debate on such a sensitive issue cannot be a good sign for democracy. Chinmayi Arun of Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University and Faculty Associate of the Berkman Centre at Harvard University in a detailed piece in The Hindu last year highlighted multiple areas of grace concern. Among the many points, two are of specific interest. The high-handed introduction of Aadhaar into our lives as a legislative mechanism and the complete absence of accountability if the authorities are found guilty of callousness or misuse.
"There are extensive threats to privacy contained within this legislation, which seeks to institutionalise an extensive, pervasive database that links multiple other databases containing our personal information. It is unconscionable for the government to pass the Aadhaar Bill with no public consultation about the sort of privacy safeguards that are necessary for such a database," she wrote.
On the subject of accountability, Chinmayi wrote: "The Aadhaar Bill excludes courts from taking cognisance of offences under the legislation, requiring that the authority that runs Aadhaar consent to prosecution for any action to be taken under the legislation. This part of the Bill completely undermines all the safeguards that do exist within it, since citizens cannot access these safeguards without co-operation from the authority which is arguably in a position of conflict of interest."
The NDA government stayed true to its high-handed ways and on Tuesday, as part of the Finance Bill proposed in making Aadhaar mandatory for filing of income-tax returns as well as for obtaining and retaining the permanent account number (PAN).
This step received backing from Supreme Court which found no merit in objections that the government's plans to make Aadhaar mandatory for opening bank accounts, getting mobile connections or passports is mala fide in intent. The Bench of Chief Justice J S Khehar and Justices DY Chandrachud and Sanjay K Kaul elucidated that the earlier interim order on the UID's optional nature pertained to benefits under social welfare schemes. As a report in Times of India points out, among such schemes, too, the court held that the Centre may insist on Aadhaar for programmes such as MGNREGA, gas subsidies, PDS rations and Jan Dhan Yojna.
As Aadhaar's scope becomes bigger and bigger, privacy safeguards remain brittle and government's moves continue to be opaque, it becomes difficult for citizens to take the promises in good faith. The government says that linking of Aadhaar to PAN and making it mandatory to file tax returns are aimed at ferreting out "resourceful" individuals who use multiple PAN cards to evade taxes. At the heart of the government's move is an effort to continue the battle against black money and it hopes that these provisions will bring much-needed transparency into the system.
As Chetan Chandak, head of tax research, H&R Block, writes in Financial Express, "The penetration of Aadhaar… is close to 111 crore… compared to PAN card holders (only 25 crore). The current government definitely wants to leverage this for unearthing black money, tracing benami transactions and increasing the overall base of taxpayers." The dispute will remain an interpretive one. It does give government the tools to go after ubiquitous corruption in our body politic but consequently, it makes ordinary citizens vulnerable to unprecedented amounts of surveillance.
As Nandan Nilekani, the man behind UID project told Britain's Financial Times, "Surveillance is far better done by following my phone, or when I use a map to order a taxi: the map knows where I am. Our internet companies know where you are…". His logic is that the Unique ID can "bring discipline" and "reduce cheating".
The second point relates to security of the database, and is equally, if not more important. With Aadhaar becoming world's most extensive repository of demographic and biometric data, can India offer the security standards needed to keep this big data safe?
A reported recent breach of Aadhaar data from agencies tasked with accumulating and storing of biometric data met with an official response from Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) which stated that "There has been no incident of misuse of Aadhaar biometrics leading to identity theft and financial loss during the past five years when more than 400 crore Aadhaar authentication transactions have taken place". Perhaps not yet. But if we are to compare Aadhaar data to a vast tank (a well-guarded one) of very sensitive information, what kind of data-breach safeguards have we put in place?
More to the point, with its shoddy record and appalling standards in cyber security, can India even remotely match up to the US or European Union norms when it comes to detecting or preventing hacking of critical information? Bear in mind that even in the US, data breaches are not immune to hacking despite their state-of-the-art, encrypted, multiple layers of security.
This is not colonial hangover or condescension towards desi standards but a very real threat perception based on the shocking lack of awareness on cyber security among our administrative machinery and security agencies. With Aadhaar, the government is asking us to jump into an abyss with our hands tied, eyes shut in response to a promise that it will catch us in time. Who's willing to bet?
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