A lot of people believe that Aadhaar is just like – or even better than — the Social Security Number system of US. This is a big myth
Awidely-held misconception in India
is that the US
social security number (SSN) is a perfect identity that simplified government administration. And that UIDAI’s (Unique Identification Authority of India
) innovation of adding biometrics to the Aadhaar number has made it foolproof. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider a few facts.
The US started issuing SSN in 1936 for social security programmes and retirement benefits; it quickly went on to become a national identifier and authentication number. It is now used for medical records, health insurance
, bank accounts, credit cards, driving licences, utility accounts, marriage and death certificates
and even private sector employee filings.
SSN’s problems arose because of the linkage to various national databases, especially when the information went online along with photos, numbers and other identification details. Identity theft exploded. Significantly, the US realised the problem and initiated safeguards way back in 2004. A memorandum titled “Safeguarding against and Responding to the Breach of Personally Identifiable Information” asked various government departments, including the military, to “examine and identify instances” where collection or use of SSN is unnecessary, in 2007. All government agencies that issued identity cards with SSNs displayed were asked to remove the number. SSNs embedded in the bar code of military cards were also phased out since 2011.
The US SSN website (www.socialsecurity.gov
) has explicit warnings about identity theft
and directions to a specialised national resource on how to fight the problem (www.idtheft.gov). Advocacy by www.theVirginiaWatchdog.com has now led to efforts to de-link various personal records from SSN. There is new legislation as well. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004
prohibits display of SSN on drivers’ licences, state ID cards
or motor-vehicle registrations. The Social Security Number Protection Act of 2010 prohibits the display of an individual’s SSN on cheques and payments. But it is, apparently, not enough.
An article by Christopher Burns in the bangordailynews.com says that, in March 2015, the office of the inspector general of SSN found that 6.5 million Americans appear to be over 112 years old. They have active SSN numbers but are most likely to be dead. This, it says, is a big factor in identify theft and leakage of government funds. Mr Burns says improper payments by a range of federal programmes cost the US government a whopping $124.7 billion in fiscal 2014 according to the government accountability office.
Clearly, a national identity number is not enough to prevent massive leakage of government funds, even in a rich and literate country like the US. All these learnings were clearly available even before the Aadhaar was born. Yet, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) launched a massive and expensive Aadhaar programme, without proper legislation passed by parliament after a national debate on security measures, restricting its issuance to Indian nationals and linking of national databases. Worse, there is no clarity on costs, renewal of biometrics (which change ever three to four years) or clarity on dealing with identity theft. Instead, successive governments have tried to roll it out by stealth, making it mandatory for admissions, property registration and government services. This continued unchecked until a handful of public interest litigations (PILs) finally reached the Supreme Court. The apex court ordered that Aadhaar cannot be mandated for availing government benefits and services; but its orders have been repeatedly flouted.
Identity theft is new to India because most government records were not online or linked to a single identification. This will change. Unfortunately, most Indians, enamoured by the life-changing benefits of technology, are still to wake up to its dangerous flipside or the trauma of a stolen identity.