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The future of UID cards

The UIDAI claims to have enrolled about 20 crore people so far, but many questions remain unanswered on the issues clouding the ambitious project to give a number to every resident of the country, intended for equal social benefits
Chokkapan S

Thursday, April 19, 2012

BANGALORE, INDIA: After a few setbacks, the second phase of Unique Identity (UID) card enrollment is poised to begin this month.

Until April, there were about 200 million (20 crore) enrollments from across the states, of which 140 million (14 crore) numbers have been issued. And the Unique Identification Authority of India, helmed by chairman Nandan Nilekani, has an ambitious target of tripling this figure by early 2014. That is, scaling up by another 400 million (40 crore) in about two years.

So far, the UID’s journey had been quite bumpy, with a lot of questions raised on individual privacy and national security concerns, among other issues.

The ball was set rolling by the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance submitted a report, that recommended scrapping of the Aadhaar scheme. While Ashok Dalwai, deputy director general, head of UIDAI technology centre, iterates that collecting multiple biometrics was through adaptation of the global best practices, including a fusion approach of combining fingerprints and iris for identification purposes, for the Indian context, the Standing Committee stressed that the Rs.. 18,000-crore UIDAI project was directionless and lacked proper implementation.

When U.K. failed…

It would be relevant to look at a similar identity project in the United Kingdom that was abandoned in 2010, following a report from the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE) that categorically stated that the project could turn out to be a “potential danger to the public interest and to the legal rights of the individuals.”

Also, that there were other undeniable reasons, such as huge costs, unreliable and untested technology and the risks to the safety and security of citizens, didn’t help the cause of the National Data Register, either.

Dr Edgar Whitley, research coordinator and lead author of the study of the London School of Economics Identity Project, would state later, “In the U.K., in 2002, there was a discussion about ‘entitlement cards’ that slowly gave way to ‘identity cards’. I think the idea that there was a single policy reason or a few policy reasons behind the identity card project would not fit the facts well.”

The team had also identified six key areas of concern with the government’s plans, including evidence from other national identity systems that showed that such schemes performed best when established for clear and focussed purposes. “The U.K. scheme had multiple, rather general, rationales, suggesting that it had been ‘gold-plated’ to justify the high-tech scheme,” Whitley was quoted saying in an interview.

That apart, there was also concern over whether the technology would work and in Whitley’s own words, no scheme on that scale had been undertaken anywhere in the world. “The India project is, of course, even bigger. Smaller and less ambitious schemes had encountered substantial technological and operational problems, which may get amplified in a large-scale national system.”

Is Aadhaar similar?

Referring to the U.K. instance, the Parliamentary Panel pointed that the UID project also involved high costs, was complex in nature, had unreliable technology and posed safety risks.

According to Prof. R. Ramakumar, associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, who has been vocal in his stance on the UID issue, “Each conclusion in the report should be discussed threadbare in the public domain. Biometrics should be withdrawn from government projects as a proof of identity.”

Alternative, and cheaper, measures to provide people with valid identity proofs should be explored, is his solution. “However, it would be a travesty of democratic principles, if the government disregards the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance report and pushes the project in through the backdoor.”

Boon or curse?

In the context of having a common denominator for all people, says Dr N. Seshagiri – who founded the National Informatics Centre and served as its director-general till 2000 – it is a good project for a developing country. But, he adds, the correlation should not be misused thereby amounting to privacy breach and security concerns.

“It can either be a boon or a curse, depending on how you implement and use it. You can’t put a bind to technology, if it is implemented properly. Also, maintenance of the project in the long run is important. Those concerned with the project should have the foresight for the times to come and think right now about updation and other issues that might crop up in future.”

What if the project gets eroded in about 10 years, as there is a strong possibility that those involved at present might not be around by then? questioned Seshagiri.

Like Maneka Gandhi, who went to get her UID number only to find to her dismay that someone else had signed on her behalf, many concerned people – but less affluent – are awaiting their cards, with a lot of hope that it might make a difference to their lives.

Will it or will it not? Is it facing a similar fate as the UK identity project? Only those entrusted with rolling out the project can ensure. Not through their words, but by deeds.

©CIOL Bureau