A Digital Identity system is going to be legislated in Australia later this year. Currently, the system is optional and has very low uptake but authorities are determined to create broad social trust in order to incorporate the whole economy.
In this article, we look at the experience of living with the world’s largest Digital ID system, India’s Aadhaar. As Rita Banerji writes, the unexpected chaos and misery caused by Aadhaar have challenged the Indian authorities’ promises of convenient and equitable access to services and safety from fraud and theft.
As we will see in a series of articles in Umbrella, many issues raised in Rita’s article remain relevant to Australia. Indeed, wide spread use of the digital identity system would seem to give government and corporations unprecedented control over the population. What will this mean for Australians?
On 29 September 2010, Ranjana Sonawane, a woman from the small tribal village of Tembli, became the first citizen to be issued India’s biometric ID card Aadhaar, amidst a grand ceremony attended by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. I barely paid any attention to it.
Like much of middle-class India, I had no plans of applying as it was voluntary and I didn’t think I needed it. According to the government, the purpose of Aadhaar was to provide an identity to the millions of underprivileged Indians who had no identity documents and, as such, could not avail themselves of government subsidies for ration, medical treatment etc.
The reason a vast section of Indians cannot apply for government identity cards is that they don’t have the primary documents. At least two of these are needed to get any government identity card; either birth certificates (most don’t know their birth dates), landline phone bills (only 2.7% of Indians had landlines then), electricity meter bills (which most don’t have as they don’t own the house they live in)or bank statements (two-thirds of Indians did not have bank accounts then).
In the absence of these documents, the Aadhaar ID would use biometrics (fingerprints and iris scans), which supposedly are unique to each individual, to provide each person with a number – the Aadhaar number, which would be their unique identity. Hence every individual could authenticate his/her identity to any office by providing their fingerprints, which should match the ones stored in the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) database.
This is what Nandan Nilekani, Chairman of the UIDAI, the private company to which the government of India had contracted the Aadhaar project, insists on. According to Nilekani, a fingerprint submitted with an Aadhaar number for authentication is compared with all the fingerprints in their database and should match with only one to establish the identity of that person.
However, when I spoke to people who worked as domestic help or vendors in my neighbourhood, and who had got Aadhaars, I found out that regardless of what the government said, Aadhaar agents were demanding at least two prior ID proofs to process Aadhaar applications. And people were buying xeroxes of stolen IDs of unknown people, sticking their picture on the face and xeroxing it, and submitting that with the application. Usually, this would not do when applying for other government IDs, as the xeroxes are verified against the originals by government officials who then have to stamp and sign the ID document for verification. But the private Aadhaar agents, working on a commission basis, who the UIDAI had sub-contracted for the job, did not have to sign for verification, and so without legal onus, they didn’t really care.
Elderly Ganga Munda of a Pathalgadi village stopped getting PDS grains since more than a year. His ration card was cancelled as it was not linked with Aadhaar. Modi can add this info in his tall claims of vikas in his Khunti rally today. #GoBackModi https://t.co/dVNjveoZeZ pic.twitter.com/pt8gXDLI2U— Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha (@JharkhandJanad1) December 3, 2019
In the meantime, there were media reports from all over India of people being refused rations because their Aadhaar fingerprints could not be authenticated. In the capital city of Delhi, 26,201 families had their food rations blocked. With at least 4 to 10 persons per family, that was about 100,000 to nearly 300,000 people without food. The situation in some regions of India was famine-like, with widespread malnourishment and multiple reports of deaths due to starvation. The government and UIDAI totally ignored these reports. They said that these were fake or duplicate Aadhaars, and their cancellation was saving the government millions of Rupees (Nilekani claims it saved the government $58,000 million). Now the government began to insist that everyone with ration cards should get an Aadhaar and link it to their ration cards so that they could weed out more fakes and duplicates, and earn the government more revenues in savings. They also began to cancel ration cards not linked to Aadhaar. A short survey in the Jharkhand region which saw the worst cases of malnutrition and starvation found that almost 88% of deleted ration cards belonged to genuine households.
So now the goal of Aadhaar had shifted from ensuring underprivileged citizens’ rights to scrutinizing all underprivileged citizens as prospective thieves. Moreover, it opened the floodgates to using the Aadhaar number as a singular digital point of mass data gathering.
As with the ration card, using the pretext of weeding out fakes, the government began to pressure people to link all their government-verified documents to their Aadhaar – Voter’s ID, Passport, Driver’s License, PAN – the Permanent Account Number, used for banking and all financial transactions, etc. Gradually, all institutions and offices, governmental and corporate, began to demand the use of Aadhaar with threats of cutting off services and entitlements, again apparently for the purpose of weeding out fakes and thugs.
One of the first agencies to demand Aadhaar was the LPG (liquified petroleum gas) or cooking gas suppliers. This was a basic household need across class boundaries, and it had everyone in a panic. Then banks threatened to freeze accounts that did not have Aadhaar. Mobile phone operators threatened to block phone services. Pension offices threatened to freeze pension payments. Corporate offices threatened to stop salaries. Pregnant women couldn’t give birth in hospitals as they weren’t allowed in without Aadhaars, and some gave birth outside the hospital on the pavement! Children with disabilities couldn’t get government disability grants. HIV and tuberculosis patients could not get treatment.
This was all illegal, as there was no legislation that made the Aadhaar mandatory for anything. Yet through it all the government and the UIDAI stayed silent and non-reactive. In response to several PILs (Public Interest Litigations) filed by individuals and civil rights groups with the Supreme Court on the unconstitutionality of the Aadhaar, and how it had become a tool of dis-entitlement, arbitrarily stripping people of their basic rights, the Supreme Court passed an interim judgment simply stating that the Aadhaar was to be used only to procure subsidies and in the absence of Aadhaar any other type of government ID would do. But the court did nothing to ensure the enforcement of its order or assure citizens of the protection of their Constitutional rights, lives and properties.
Aadhaar, this shape-shifting beast, that had entered society quietly and benevolently, had become an all-powerful, omnipresent monster, that threatened to destroy our lives if we did not submit to it.
Within 6-7 years of its launch, Aadhaar had slowly crept into every nook of society, creating an environment of total anarchy, fear, and panic– the likes of which we had never witnessed in India– as people across classes clamoured for the Aadhaar. Middle-class people who had other IDs that served all their purposes, and who like me felt no need for an Aadhaar, felt they needed to get one, just to appease the beast, every time it opened its mouth threateningly.
So there I was one morning, at 4am, queueing outside one of the Aadhaar registration offices which I found listed on the UIDAI’s website, with my mother who was terrified her pension would be stopped without the Aadhaar.
Strangely, unlike the poorer communities, who had been stripped of food and nonchalantly left to starve to death, there were not many instances of the middle-class suffering blockage of pension, phone or bank accounts due to lack of Aadhaar. In fact, all the reports of senior citizens (among the poor and middle-class) being deprived of their pension were because their biometrics couldn’t be authenticated against their Aadhaar. One of my mother’s friends, a retired schoolteacher, couldn’t draw her pension because her fingerprints wouldn’t authenticate against her Aadhaar. But her son, an investment banker, supported her financially so after some time she just stopped visiting offices to get her dues.
The failure of fingerprint authentication was due to various reasons: failure of technology, fingerprints changing due to age, injury or manual work, and theft of biometrics (as I discuss later). Amputees and people missing fingers from leprosy could not authenticate or even apply for the Aadhaar. It was found that in just one state alone, Orissa, 1100,000 people could lose their pension because their fingerprints could not be authenticated. Even though I told my mother that they cannot legally stop your pension due to the lack of Aadhaar, and getting an Aadhaar might actually serve to block your pension if your biometrics don’t match, she went into panic mode and still insisted on the Aadhaar.
“If my fingers are good to vote,why aren't they enough for an #Aadhaar card?”asks Parwati Devi, a waste worker whose fingers are damaged by leprosy. Like many others without the Aadhaar card, she can't get her disability pension or rations. https://t.co/CGgolZ7NlH— People's Archive of Rural India (@PARInetwork) July 29, 2018
– @pujaawasthi pic.twitter.com/6BRqH7ZoDx
At the Aadhaar application office, the line of desperate applicants wound around the block even though my mother and I arrived at 4am as advised by some friends. It was a ramshackle hut with a smudgy piece of white cardboard hanging on the door, on which the handwritten sign said “Aadhaar Here.” At 3pm when our turn came, the agent collected our applications, made us sign the Xerox copies of our IDs, and told us we would be called on the mobile number we provided, to come give our biometrics. This was a procedure we knew from other people. When two weeks later the phone call hadn’t come, I returned to the office to find out the agent had closed shop, removed his grubby white Aadhaar placard from the door and disappeared. My queries to the Aadhaar HQ in Bangalore got no response. I feared our stolen documents and ID would be misused but there is no physical Aadhaar office in my city or human face that I could interact with to clarify anything.
It was a feeling of being trapped, by a nameless, faceless, totalitarian system, that could compel me to apply for an ID that I knew was unsafe, whose very ecosystem was vague and insecure, and even when I felt robbed and cheated by the system, I could get no answer or accountability from the system about what had happened or could happen to me.
The UIDAI informed the Indian Parliament that more than 50,000 Aadhaar agents had been fired for stealing people’s IDs, documents and biometrics for the purpose of selling them. There’s no telling how many millions of citizens were affected (which included me!). In a sting operation by The Tribune newspaper, a journalist was able to buy the Aadhaar details of 1 billion Indians from an Aadhaar agent, for just US $7. For another $4 they got the software to print out anyone’s Aadhaar card.
The Aadhaar agents were simply fired. There was no police case filed and no attempt was made by the UIDAI to determine who the affected customers were, what happened to their data, and whether if any rectification could be made. That’s because it’s understood that when you are dealing with data on such a massive scale, involving millions, there is no telling where it will end up as it can pass from hand to hand very rapidly on the digital highway. There already is a fast-growing market for the Aadhaar data on the dark web.
Further, there have been massive Aadhaar data leaks from government and corporate websites. Aadhaar details of 166,000 government workers were leaked from the website of the Jharkhand state government. The Prime Minister’s office leaked 110 million farmers’ Aadhaar details enrolled for a special PM benefits project. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) Global Risks Report 2019, says, “The largest (data breach) was in India, where the government ID database, Aadhaar, reportedly suffered multiple breaches that potentially compromised the records of all 1.1 billion registered citizens. It was reported in January 2018 that criminals were selling access to the database at a rate of Rs500 for 10 minutes, while in March a leak at a state-owned utility company allowed anyone to download names and ID numbers.”
Where previously all our personal information existed in separate silos so that even if there was a leak, no one could have access to all our information. Now all our IDs and everything we do – our name, address, phone, email, banks, job, salary, medical records, pension, travel, lifestyle, family, relatives, associates, etc- are all aggregated in one digital point, an Aadhaar number, which we are forced to submit to everyone, and so anyone anywhere can access all the information on anyone.
The focus of the Supreme Court hearings with regard to mass Aadhaar data aggregation, data theft and leaks has been on privacy. However, privacy is a vague concept, and perhaps too benign a word to describe the actual dangers of a mass aggregator digital ID like Aadhaar, to personal safety and theft of identity and property. It’s a lethal weapon in the hands of criminals, stalkers and traffickers.
There are already multiple reports of theft of identity and Bank savings via Aadhaar. People are stealing stored fingerprints from land registries linked to Aadhaar, and then using that to withdraw cash from the Aadhaar-linked bank account of that person. Ration shop owners are stealing Aadhaar data and soft copies of fingerprints from customers and selling them to gangs of criminals who are manufacturing rubber clones of the fingers and using them to steal rations. As per the UIDAI, 60 million active Aadhaar numbers belong to deceased people, and these too are being stolen by criminal gangs, who use them to open bank accounts in the name of the deceased, to sell off the land and properties of the deceased. They are also doing the same to people who may have relocated to another town. There are also cases where people’s Aadhaar identities are being stolen specifically for the purpose of committing crimes. A woman in Calcutta was shocked to find the police from Rajasthan, across the country, knocking at her door regarding crimes committed with her stolen identities.
Probably one of the most dangerous outcomes of this centralized, digitalized society is the totalitarian control it gives the government. In 2016, the government in the state of Rajasthan stopped pensions for 300,000 people and cancelled the pensions of 700,000 more, declaring them fake or dead because their fingerprints couldn’t be authenticated. Through public hearings, RTI activists found out they are real people who are alive. These people are now called the “living dead ” because officially the government has declared them dead. As Aadhaar is their only ID, which records them as dead, they cannot apply for any benefits or do anything, anywhere, since they legally don’t exist. Life for these people becomes impossible and makes them more vulnerable to early death.
An elderly woman had to drag her 100-year-old mother on a cot to the Bank , at Nuapada District of Odisha, as officials refused access to her Jan Dhan Yojana account without physical verification.The incident took place three days back but videos viral on Saturday pic.twitter.com/gJ5MBPR8jQ— kalpataru ojha (@Ojha_kalpataru) June 14, 2020
One of the reasons for these mass exclusions due to the Aadhaar may be that this system, based on biometrics, clearly understands that once a person’s biometrics are compromised, the damage is irreversible. One can change a PIN, but when your fingerprints are your password you can’t possibly change those. So perhaps the “living dead,” and the thousands stripped of food, pension, medical aid etc. are simply collateral damage for a system with bigger goals. What then are those goals?
Nilekani believes that India will become data rich before becoming economically rich, and the Aadhaar is the tool to create that data wealth. In 2021 India accounted for the largest number of real-time transactions – 48 billion- in the world.. Ultimately it does not matter whose data it is. Or who that data point is. Whether it’s the real person or a silicon thumbprint or a criminal or trafficker. Big business is only interested in how that point of data acts and behaves in the context of the market.
As an article in The Economist said in 2017, “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil but data…Governments could encourage the emergence of new services by opening up more of their own data vaults or managing crucial parts of the data economy as public infrastructure, as India does with its digital-identity system, Aadhaar.”