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World’s most ambitious identity system is falling to pieces #UID #Aadhaar

 

Governments take note: the world’s most ambitious identity system is falling to pieces

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By Vickram Crishna

Any country planning to introduce a national identity system should take careful note of recent events in India. This country’s most ambitious – indeed the world’s most ambitious – identity assurance program has become a juggernaut. Even more relevant, it has become a reckless juggernaut that moves with inexorable and crushing indifference to the humans it encounters.

Publicly identified with an industry executive, whose company was the darling of the media for its work in information technology, the scheme in fact dates back to various jingoistic proposals made in the wake of the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan. It was finally launched a decade later, through a convoluted process designed to evade public scrutiny and oversight, in the form of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).

As might be expected, the project’s implementation left much to be desired, except in the mindless pursuit of numbers. This effort has been bewildering – fraught as it is with the downside of haste and the vast technological system issues of managing digital waste.

As might be expected, the project’s implementation left much to be desired, except in the mindless pursuit of numbers. This effort has been bewildering – fraught as it is with the downside of haste and the vast technological system issues of managing digital waste.

Legal challenges to the process of formation of the implementing agency – as well as to its processes and achievements – were initiated in 2011, once the state had failed to introduce an affirming Bill to legitimise the executive promulgation. In fact, it was roundly rejected by the scrutinisers, the Standing Committee on Finance.This writer filed a public interest petition in the Bombay High Court early in 2012, challenging the UIDAI and listing some of the key defects in its design and implementation, praying for immediate cease of operations. Some of its amusing(!) outcomes include a number issued in the variant name of a herb, coriander, accompanied by the photograph of a mobile phone, together with an improbable address. Clearly, UIDAI’s implementation left something to be desired. Other outcomes have not been so amusing.

Tens of thousands of application forms have been found dumped in alleyways and gutters. Some of them appear not to have been processed at all, leaving hapless applicants in the dark. Real world problems with landless and migrant labourers were complicated by the deliberate rejection of an internal study that revealed fingerprinting was unreliable for vast numbers of persons engaged in physical labour, even housewives, afflicted with the impact of cooking and cleaning.

The study concluded the inability to record a reliable print (a digitally coded rendering, not a photograph, might be 15% – vastly higher than international expectations of 5% – the latter being drawn primarily from white collar workers in high-technology establishments where biometrics have become a handy tool for location management, rather than the general population of a mostly rural country).

The actual impact of this difficulty was not, as might be expected, a redesign of the process to ensure that the identity assurance system could actually be implemented. Instead, after failing to convince the then Finance Minister – who is today the country’s President – to sanction even more money (a billion dollars is the generously conservative estimate of the present gush, the actual figure, factoring in additional spends by numerous government departments, is anybody’s guess) to include iris scanning for both assurance and verification, the verification side has been dropped.

Unbelievably, this high-technology countrywide identity assurance system actually lacks a credible process for verification, so the number – as printed on a specially designed layout that includes a symbolic code – is being accepted in lieu.

The Bombay High Court process includes some delays, and some of those are almost inevitable given the legendary backlog of cases that plague the Indian legal system. However, around the time the case was taken up, the UIDAI petitioned the Supreme Court to club all petitions in the country into a single adjudication. Doing this took the best part of a year. However, hearings began, and following the first set (well, the only set, actually, so far), the court issued an interim order effective immediately to clarify that no service of the government or its agencies could be made conditional upon mandatory registration with the UIDAI.

 Some of its amusing(!) outcomes include a number issued in the variant name of a herb, coriander, accompanied by the photograph of a mobile phone, together with an improbable address. Clearly, UIDAI’s implementation left something to be desired. Other outcomes have not been so amusing.

This may bring some relief to residents of some parts of India, such as Delhi and Bengaluru, where applications for marriages and driving licenses were made mandatorily subject to the production of a UIDAI registration (without verification, note). However, there are numerous cases where the pressure is applied simply by refusal of service, without written reason. In most cases, the functionaries refusing service are junior level clerks whose degree of courtesy and forthcoming ways with information are justly famed.

This year, the court was approached once more, to revive the hearings. After some deliberation, which included verbal expressions of unease by some members of the Bench (specially constituted for this case) about the excesses of the UIDAI approach. My broad understanding of what happened  (I wasn’t present, nor is there a public transcript to quote) is that a date was set  and the decision made to hear the cases (right now about nine or ten, after including a couple of new ones filed since the last hearing) continuously and successively in July.

The delay has reason: the Court is about to close for the summer and the need for resolution of so many serious cases, on matters that directly affect the safety and security of close to a billion and a half people, is palpable.

In the meantime, it’s business as usual. Two new schemes, pensions and income taxes, have had the unique number added into their processes this week. The pension chaps openly say they won’t verify the UID numbers, introduced gratuitously, and the tax people say that the existing paper-based verification – which they claim has not been understood by the people and is not followed, leading to large numbers of incomplete filings and potential for both legal disputes and hardships – will now be bolstered by the inclusion of the UID number, which will automatically(?) verify the person filing. Since the majority of returns are filed with the help of independent chartered accountants and filing professionals, this will further publicise the link between individuals, their tax numbers and numerous other details (including every single bank account held), with every chance that it will be irresponsibly hosed through the digisphere. The possibility for vast levels of fraud is mind-boggling.

And immense surveillance is already authorised, with laws in place for the establishment of indigenous Echelons and the like. Next week, a proposal to control Internet access through mobile phones (India’s most significant access path) will be considered by the regulator, a move that has provoked hundreds of thousands of protest emails.

We do live, an ancient echo from our neighbours to the East, in interesting times.

http://www.privacysurgeon.org/blog/incision/governments-take-note-the-worlds-most-ambitious-identity-system-is-falling-to-pieces/

 

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