I only wanted to make a
withdrawal (Image: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times/Redux/Eyevine)
Started in 2009, Aadhaar holds the
fingerprints, iris and facial scans of 600 million Indians. Besides school
attendance, the database is used to provide natural gas subsidies to India's
rural poor, and to send wages directly to people's bank accounts. It is a way of
providing identification to people who may not even have a birth certificate,
and has been trumpeted by the national government as a way to stamp out fraud.
Aadhaar was the flagship programme of India's Congress Party, which lost to
Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on 16 May in the country's general
elections (see "A
social election"). The BJP slammed Aadhaar in the run up to the election,
calling it a failure and a waste of money. "They've been speaking out against it
publicly," says Reetika Khera, an economist at the Indian Institute of
Technology in Delhi. "They've been trashing it."
isn't the only developing country with a national biometrics programme. There
are more than 1 billion people enrolled in biometrics schemes across the
developing world. Governments claim the systems are filling an "identification
gap" left by a lack of official documentation, such as birth certificates, that
citizens of rich countries take for granted.
Privacy advocates see such systems as causing a power imbalance between
governments and citizens. In 2012, the Electronic Frontier Foundation
SIBIOS system for "opening the door to widespread privacy violations".
Aadhaar's greatest promise was to reduce fraudulent claims of government welfare
payments, says Khera. It aimed to cut corrupt middlemen out of India's right to
work scheme, through which all residents are guaranteed 100 days' work a year,
paid at minimum wage.
the old system someone would work 20 days, but the person at the work site who
marks attendance would add another zero and make it look like they've worked 200
days," says Khera. "A higher official would make the payment and they'd share
the booty, then he'd give a person 20 days' pay and make them sign for the whole
Direct payments to bank accounts associated with Aadhaar do indeed fix the
immediate problem of fraud, by preventing fraudsters from stealing someone's
identity and setting up false accounts in their name. Without biometrics, "I
don't even know that the bad guys are withdrawing my money", Khera says. "Now
you need my fingerprint to authenticate."
it hasn't worked out as planned, because new problems have sprung up. Corrupt
administrators who inflate work claims can simply coerce a worker to withdraw
the fraudulent payments from their account, or invite the worker to join them in
Malavika Jayaram, a privacy researcher at Harvard University, says Aadhaar makes
people who are vulnerable take responsibility for preventing fraud.
are shifting the burden of responsibility onto the person who is weakest in the
chain, expecting the least sophisticated in the system to make sound technical
decisions about when to use biometrics," she says. "It's insane."
are other problems with relying on biometrics to deliver vital services.
People's faces and irises change as they age, and some 15 per cent of people in
India have had their fingerprints rubbed off through manual labor. As a result,
the Unique Identity Authority (UID) of India, which runs Aadhaar, wants data to
be entered into the database at birth, but then have people update their
biometrics once they are older. This gives them an opportunity to create a fake
"There are kids who have gone and registered three or four times," says Jayaram,
adding that people have managed to get their dogs' faces, rather than their own,
registered in the database, or pictures of zombies. These are just spoofs, but
they show that the system is vulnerable to fakes that could be used
if someone breaks into Aadhaar and steals biometric data, it's very hard to
correct. "With other security systems, if someone gets your password you can
change it," says Khera. But you can't make a quick change to your irises or
Indian Supreme Court has taken a stand against Aadhaar too. In February, the
court ruled that the government cannot make it compulsory to join the biometric
database in order to use a government service. Aadhaar has always been
advertised as a voluntary database, but the ruling took the wind out of the
UID's sails, says Khera.
Jayaram is conflicted. In a country with no data protection laws, she says such
a pervasive government-run system does not serve the people. Yet it could, if
legislation were passed that guards the privacy of the citizens Aadhaar was
designed to serve. "Two years ago I would have said I just want the project to
die," she says. "Now I say, 'How can we make it better?'"
article will appear in print under the headline "The eyes have it"
Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party won a historic victory last week. The
planet's largest democracy cast 528 million votes, sweeping him to victory over
the incumbent Congress Party by the largest margin in an Indian election since
243 million Indians now have access to the internet, and with tens of millions
of them on Facebook and Twitter, the candidates made heavy use of social media.
is known for his active online presence – he has more than 4 million followers
on Twitter, and in November 2012 he gave a speech concurrently in 26 locations
across India using a
holographic projection of himself.
Source: New Scientist URL: