by R Jagannathan  Oct 28, 2014 20:53 IST

Nandan Nilekani’s Unique ID scheme, Aadhaar, is making a big comeback under Narendra Modi.

Without strong legal safeguards, it is likely to become a Frankenstein, empowering the state at the expense of the citizen.

The unique Aadhaar number, issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India, has been in limbo ever since the Supreme Court made it clear that it cannot be the basis for giving or denying welfare benefits to the poor. In the dying days of the UPA, the Congress party itself chickened out of using Aadhaar for direct benefits transfers (DBT). After Modi came to power, it seemed as if the government would bury the scheme and give the home ministry’s National Population Register (NCR) pride of place in issuing citizen ID cards. But Modi, after a presentation from Nilekani himself, appears to have decided that Aadhaar is the way to go.

Modi should hasten slowly in the matter, for Aadhaar is a partly illegal scheme that is collecting citizen’s biometric data without any legislation to protect people from potential misuse. The data collection, outsourced to many private parties, effectively leaves large bits of private data (iris and finger prints, for example) in private hands, even though the idea is to feed the data into a huge centrally-controlled database.

In the past, Aadhaar cards have been issued not only to residents, but trees, chairs and dogs. Even assuming these are minor aberrations, the point is the scope for misuse is very high, since the data primarily passes through private hands – whose antecedents we don’t know anything about and against whom we have no indemnities.

, Mr Modi, do not jump into Aadhaar without a strong law to prevent its misuse, and without specifying clearly what the data will be used for and what it will never be used for. Reuters

The attractions of Aadhaar for a government keen to cut subsidies are obvious. A unique ID will ensure that fake and duplicate names are excluded from the roster of welfare beneficiaries. It will also enable inclusive banking to the poor by giving them an identity that otherwise would not have. Modi’s Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana uses Aadhaar to open accounts, even though other forms of ID are also acceptable.

The real problem is Aadhaar puts the cart before the horse, and for that very reason it leaves enormous power in the hands of a faceless bureaucracy which can quietly push the scheme without technically flouting the Supreme Court’s instructions on it. Banks are quietly pushing Aadhaar, and cooking gas agencies care two hoots about what the Supreme Court has said before asking consumers to produce an Aadhaar number. Marriage registrars and schools in some states are demanding Aadhaar as a prerequisite. A citizen caught in this pincer will, more often than not, acquiesce. Where the rubber hits the road, the Supreme Court can do nothing to protect us as it cannot fight the bureaucracy in every state.

As I have written repeatedly, Aadhaar is of questionable legality, and sooner or later a court interested in privacy and individual freedom cannot but strike it down – or at least modify some aspects of it. If Modi is really keen on Aadhaar, he must first legislate stringent laws that will penalise anyone who can ever misuse the data – including, and especially, the government. Aadhaar is currently stealing every Indian resident’s most private data (his identity, his biometrics, his fingerprints) and pretending it is doing him a favour.

Any society that values citizen’s rights should be wary of keeping an entire population’s biometric and personal details in huge databases controlled by a faceless bureaucracy. We need only refer to the widespread accessing of mobile call data records by the powerful to know how much misuse is possible.

Aadhaar is being sold as a way to empower the poor who don’t have an identity but need government subsidies to survive. But it is being covertly pushed to the entire population using the coercive power of the bureaucrat’s pen. If bank accounts, provident funds, mutual funds, gas connections, and big financial transactions of citizens are going to need an Aadhaar number, this means the government has forced a unique ID on us indirectly without even legally being entitled to do so.

Also, since private parties have collected my biometrics, who will be held responsible if this data is found in the wrong hands?

And let’s not forget how Aadhaar empowers the state at the expense of the citizen. Once your income-tax numbers, bank accounts, credit card transactions, and asset purchases are linked through a common Aadhaar number, anyone in any part of a coercive tax system can blackmail you if your assets and financial details are leaked. Not only that, when the next big terror attack happens, suddenly the government will have a huge justification to use the data to track potential terrorists. After that, we will be sliding down a slippery slope to lower levels of privacy protection for all citizens.

The Indian will be left naked against a Frankenstein state.

So, Mr Modi, do not jump into Aadhaar without a strong law to prevent its misuse, and without specifying clearly what the data will be used for and what it will never be used for.

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