Biometric databases have given birth to gnawing present and future civil liberties and civil rights concerns. The history of biometric profiling, going back to at least the 19th century, is a history of violence and repression. A stolen password can be changed, stolen fingerprints cannot be.

Biometric identification is an invitation to violence. A motorist in Germany had a finger chopped off by thieves seeking to steal his exotic car, which used a fingerprint reader instead of a door-lock. As The Economist noted in 2010 in an article on the fallibility of biometric identification, “Keeping evildoers out is no simple screening matter”, contrary to the belief of the proponents of the Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR) for the Aadhaar numbers.

As per Section 2(g) of the Aadhaar Act, 2016, “biometric information means photograph, fingerprint, iris scan, or such other biological attributes of an individual as may be specified by regulations.” The reference to “such other biological attributes” makes it clear that voice sample and DNA profiling may come under its ambit in the future. It is noteworthy that the Human DNA Profiling Bill, 2015, aimed at regulating the use of DNA analysis and to establish a National DNA Data Bank. The definition of biometric information in the Aadhaar Act seems to make the proposed Human DNA Profiling Bill redundant.

It is germane to recall that the Task Force for preparation of Policy Document on Identity and Access Management under the National e-Governance Programme (NeGP), which submitted a report in April 2007 that revealed Project Unique ID (UID) “to create a central database of resident information and assign a Unique Identification number to each such resident…in the country…”, was already under implementation long before the arrival of Nandan Nilekani in July 2009 as chairman of the UIDAI. This report defined biometrics and made one of the earliest references to “biometric authentication”.

Biometric identification and authentication is the foundation on which the entire CIDR of Aadhaar project has been erected. But proponents of the project feign ignorance about a five-year study, Biometric Recognition: Challenges and Opportunities, published in September 2010 by the National Research Council in Washington, DC, which concluded that biometric identification and recognition is “inherently fallible” like the discredited science of Eugenics.

Indians under US surveillance

Former electronics and IT secretary J Satyanarayana, currently part-time chairman of UIDAI, was a member of the Task Force, which included 34 other members, including 11 technology solutions providers, mostly giant US corporations.

Asked about surveillance by the US National Security Agency on Indians by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, Satyanarayana said, “We have been assured that whatever data has been gathered by them for surveillance relates only to metadata…which is, the origin of the message and the receiving point, the destination and the route through which it has gone, but not the actual content itself…we expressed that any incursion into the content will not be tolerated…”

In effect, the Government of India has formally told the US government that India has no problem if American agencies conduct surveillance of Indian citizens for metadata. It must be remembered that the idea of UID was incubated in Satyanarayana’s very department. Contract agreements accessed through RTI reveal unequivocally that sensitive personal data of Indians have been handed over to transnational private companies like Accenture, Safran Group and Ernst & Young.

No recourse for individuals

The powers of the UIDAI include the power of “omitting and deactivating an Aadhaar number and information relating thereto…” Read with the government’s directives to make Aadhaar mandatory for any and every government service or benefit, in effect, the Aadhaar Act has empowered the central government to cause “civil death” – or the loss of all civil rights — of anyone for any reason.

Worse, as per Section 47(1) of the Aadhaar Act, “No court shall take cognizance of any offence punishable under this Act, save on a complaint made by the Authority or any officer or person authorised by it.” This takes away the right of citizens to move any court for the enforcement of the rights conferred by Articles 14, 21 and 22 of the Constitution. In effect, individuals have no recourse to the law on matters relating to the misuse or abuse of one’s Aadhaar by the UIDAI or any other agency, unless the UIDAI itself lodges a complaint!

Such provisions were forced on citizens – illegally, of course – only during Emergency, when a Presidential Order declared that “the right of any person (including a foreigner) to move any court for the enforcement of the rights conferred by Articles 14, 21 and 22 of the Constitution and all proceedings pending in any court for the enforcement of the above-mentioned rights shall remain suspended…”

That order came in handy for Sanjay Gandhi to assault Indian citizens, using State machinery and authority to forcibly sterilise thousands of men during Emergency. The Indian resident is once again under attack through indiscriminate biometric profiling. Such a project, which is aimed at creating an unlimited government, not limited by the Constitution, must be abandoned forthwith in the supreme public interest.

(The writer is a public policy and law
researcher and convener of Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties)