Neta Nilekani is fine, but I still wouldn't buy his Aadhaar

The morning's papers are awash with speculation about Nandan Nilekani, Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), fighting the next Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket. Since there is no smoke without fire, one can assume that the speculation is reasonably founded in fact. Good luck to him in his career.

However, there's nothing surprising about it. Nilekani has been doing the UPA's dirty work of shoving a quasi-illegal Aadhaar card down our throats in the name of empowering the poor. If an articulate and intelligent man like Nilekani can push such a major initiative without any law backing it and still survive the political challenges, he is surely half a politician already.

Given the Congress' good showing in Karnataka recently, Nilekani is probably home and dry even before the battle for votes begins. Let’s also not forget. Nilekani faced challenges from many parts of the government, from the Planning Commission, the finance ministry and the home ministry. If he still survived such a formidable challenge, surely he is cut out for politics.

Reuters

Nilekani is the chairman of the Aadhaar card project. Reuters

Nilekani is the kind of guy I could have voted for, but I am not sure I would want to take his Aadhaar card.

I prefer Neta Nilekani to Nilekani the UID vendor. Since the two are the same, I can't ultimately vote for Nilekani either.

Nobody should be under the illusion that Aadhaar is any kind of boon conferred on us by Nilekani. It is a Trojan horse gifted by a dysfunctional government which will ultimately compromise our security without even a figleaf of statutory protection for our privacy. It has been sold as a means to reach government benefits to the poor, but it could well end up as one more tool in the hands of the powerful to exclude some and extract speed money from the rest.

There are many reasons why I don't think Nilekani has done us a favour with Aadhaar.

First, of course, is its questionable legality. There is no law which authorises anyone, even if the PM has told him to do so, to take the Indian citizen’s most prized possession – his identity, his biometrics, his fingerprints – and pretend he is doing him a favour.

Morally and ethically, no one should do this without having a law guaranteeing adequate protection against misuse of the data collected. There is no such assurance to Indian citizens that their fingerprints will not fall in the wrong hands.

Second, the idea of keeping an entire population’s biometric and personal details – every man, woman and child living in the territory of India, even if not a citizen – in huge databases is scary.

Some 1,210 million people will stand exposed when UIDAI is completed. No country has ever done this for unstated purposes, though the US does so for social security, and has strong laws protecting people against misuse. If Hitler wanted a tool to control his people, he could not have asked for a better weapon than the UID database.

Third, the scheme is being sold as a way to empower the poor who don’t have an identity but need government subsidies to survive. But it is being covertly pushed to the entire population.

It is being pushed steadily by using the coercive power of the bureaucrat’s pen to make Aadhaar critical for all basic needs. If bank accounts, provident funds, mutual funds, gas connections, and almost any financial transaction by any citizen are going to need an Aadhaar number, this means the government has forced a unique ID on us indirectly without even legally being entitled to do so. If this is not a Trojan horse, what is?

Fourth, today all kinds of private parties are being used to collect finger-prints and iris biometrics. If the collection of private data is in private hands at the start, what is to prevent this data from remaining in private hands illegally? Remember, at some point the idea is to use Aadhaar numbers to validate identity for financial transactions.

But if my Aadhaar information is with a private party, will Nilekani guarantee that I cannot be impersonated? And if it does happen, who will protect me? The banks, which are being pressured to use Aadhaar numbers?

Fifth, the real economic purpose of Aadhaar is to cut out fake and duplicate beneficiaries of government subsidies. This is a good reason to use the Aadhaar. However, in practice, this will increase bribery and corruption on an unimagined scale. Since no politician wants to lose any vote by specifically excluding the middle class or the non-poor from receiving subsidies, the chances are Aadhaar will be improperly used.

To prevent exclusion from subsidies, everyone from gas dealers to power suppliers will seek bribes to ensure you continue to be subsidised. It is only a matter of time before politicians and middlemen figure out how to use Aadhaar to enrich themselves.

Sixth, extortion will become easier. Once your income-tax numbers, bank accounts, credit card transactions, and asset purchases are linked through a common Aadhaar number, anyone in any part of a coercive tax system can blackmail you if your assets and financial details are leaked, you will be vulnerable.

Remember, the whole 2G scam was unveiled when the Radia tapes were illegally leaked. Today, laws are in place to listen to every mobile conversation you make, every website you visit, and every transaction you conduct. Enter Aadhaar, and the ability of the establishment to connect all your conversations and transactions will magnify 10-fold. Do we want to be that vulnerable?

Seventh, the collective wisdom of the parliamentary standing committee on finance clearly warned against the UIDAI. It vetted the UPA’s National Identification Authority of India Bill 2010 and recommended that it be trashed and replaced with something better.

A report in India Today said the committee “strongly disapproved” of the “hasty manner” in which the scheme was being implemented, and pointed out that the data could be “misused”. (Nilekani, incidentally, is the man hastening Aadhaar.

The report said: “The committee has questioned the technology used in Aadhaar.” It questioned the “technology as ‘unreliable and untested’.

It has also cited the experience of foreign countries with similar schemes and said that many European nations withdrew their UID projects after opposition from the public.”

This is not to say that Nilekani was brought in specifically to intrude into citizens’ privacy. Neither Manmohan Singh nor Nilekani could have had that thought in mind when they started out with Aadhaar. But during the course of the last five years it should have been obvious to Nilekani that the original purpose was going to be compromised in the minefield of politics.

None of this also means that we don’t need an Aadhaar. There are, and can be, many legitimate uses for the Aadhaar number. But there is little doubt about its current dangers.

Should Nilekani have gone ahead and still done the job without ensuring citizen safeguards and a legal backing? It is quite possible that Nilekani was sold a pup by the UPA. But should he have then sold the pup to us, in turn? He is already part of a messy political compromise where the integrity of the citizen’s privacy is now up in the air. Maybe he will fix the problem once he is elected and gets to take Aadhaar forward. But no one can bet on that any more.

I, for one, would not like to get myself an Aadhaar number.

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Updated Date: Sep 18, 2013 14:42:56 IST

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