200 px

200 px (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

24 Jun, 2012, 01.31PM IST, M Rajshekhar,ET Bureau

Imagine a rural family of five. Mom. Dad. Two kids. And Grandma. Assume too that they are below the poverty line. The day is coming when this family will have to give its biometrics out to myriad agencies.You know that Nandan Nilekani‘s Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) or the Registrar General’s National Population Register(NPR) has been collecting biometrics for a while now.But a set of other departments have entered the fray. This ranges from the PDS department, ministry of rural development (MoRD), states’ education departments, the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), banks, the department of social welfare, the post office…they are all collecting biometrics (see Agencies Collecting BiometricsRight Now).This is the latest iteration in India‘s tryst with biometrics. From a beginning where only the NPR – and, a little later, the UIDAI – were to capture biometrics, we have now reached a point where myriad departments and ministries are camping in India’s villages and towns, capturing fingerprints and iris images.

Identity Thieves

There was to be one large database. Now, we are moving to a system where multiple agencies capture and store biometrics data in myriad servers. This is amplifying the risk of biometric theft.

As Sunil Abraham, the head of Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society says, “If biometrics is used as authentication factor then it would be possible for a criminal to harvest your biometrics – such as using a glass to collect fingerprints – without your conscious cooperation. Or the registrar can cache your biometrics and duplicate transactions.”

As the number of databases containing biometrics rises, the risk of this information leaking out increases. There have been complaints against an UIDAI enrolment agency called Madras Security Printers that it had sold data to private companies. There were also charges that enrolment agencies had outsourced the enrolment work to other companies, which they are not allowed to do.

What complicates matters further is there are not many safeguards. The country doesn’t have a policy on how biometrics can be captured, used, stored and destroyed. But before we get deeper into that story, it is useful to understand why multiple departments have begun collecting biometrics.

Biometric Rush

According to a senior bureaucrat who recently retired from the ministry of planning, the answer lies in the 2014 elections. “For the government, cash transfers are the large reforms that they think UPA 2 can point towards in the next elections. For this reason, they need all this up and running before 2014.”

Biometric data
However, over the past few months, parts of the government are increasingly unsure if UIDAI and NPR will meet their targets. “I do not think the 2014 target can be met at all,” says a senior official in the National Informatics Centre(NIC). “We have to enroll another 800 million people. Then, we have to deduplicate them. Then, we have to make the cards and distribute them.”This is one reason why a set of government departments are configuring their own alternatives. Take the Department of Financial Services (DFS). It has been testing an online, biometric system for cash payments in Haryana’s Mewat district for months now. Here, each bank will store its customers’ biometric information in its own servers.If a customer of bank A goes to a banking correspondent (BC) agent of bank B, his biometrics would be forwarded by bank B to bank A for authentication. Once authenticated, the transaction will be completed. “We should be rolling the new system out nationally from July or August,” says the bureaucrat.The rural development ministry is also testing its payment system. Once the local administration tells the ministry about who worked how many days, the ministry will be able to put money into their accounts automatically via a payment gateway. Right now, this is done manually with the block development officer and sarpanch making out the cheques.

This pilot, says DK Jain, joint secretary, MoRD, started 3-4 months ago in parts of Gujarat, Karnataka, Odisha and Rajasthan. In another six months, it will be available across the country. And then, there is the PDS.

Here, different states are putting different systems in place. Andhra, says a senior mandarin in the food ministry, is going with UID, Haryana is looking at smart cards, Jharkhand is going with Aadhaar, MP and Gujarat are testing food coupons, while Chhattisgarh has decided to use RSBY and Orissa has chosen NPR.

Apart from this, data is also being collected by the RSBY and BC companies on behalf of the banks handling welfare payments, or scrambling to meet their financial inclusion targets.

A New Set of Worries

As the number of databases rises, a new set of worrying questions are coming to the fore. The first has to do with this enthusiastic adoption of biometrics. If they do not work, people might be excluded from something as basic as citizenship, or from government programmes.

IISc students staged a silent protest
IISc students staged a silent protest against UID after Nandan Nilekani, chairman of UID, addressed students of National Institute of Advanced Studies at IISc campus in Bangalore.
Second, safety of this information. If your credit card PIN becomes public information, you can always call your bank and get it blocked. But what do you do if someone gets hold of your biometrics?Says human rights researcher Usha Ramanathan, “Biometrics is intimate personal data. Its proliferation represents a distinct threat to the personal security of the individual. Interestingly, it has hardly been tested, and when tested, been found deeply defective. Biometrics does not work for everyone, it can be stolen, it cannot be replaced, it changes, and none of this is acknowledged. Biometrics is too sensitive to be collected, held, transacted and shared without stringent protection of law.”However, we have rushed ahead. A suggestion from the standing committee on finance which, while rejecting the draft National Identification Authority of India Bill, said biometrics cannot be collected without discussion and authorisation by the parliament has gone entirely ignored.Cyber Security

And then, there are data safety questions. Says the NIC official, “In my opinion if all the solutions are in isolation to each other then there cannot be any common safeguard mechanism. Every organisation shall have to ensure their own data security by applying normal cyber security principles.”

The official was referring to technology standards – on data encryption and firewalls. How are we doing here? Not very well. Says B Sambamurthy, head of Hyderabad-based Institute for Development and Research into Banking Technology: “There are standards for capturing, storaging and retrieving of biometric data. The problem is not with technology or standards but rigorous compliance.”

And then, there are more procedural aspects – like ensuring that the information collected is not shared, or that it be used only for the purpose for which it was collected. These are entirely missing. Take Andhra Pradesh, where the government tried to share the biometrics it had collected for one programme with other government departments. But that triggers larger questions about consent and ownership over biometric information. Can a person’s biometrics be used in ways he or she has not expressly authorised?

These are issues that the privacy bill will have to look at. Says a bureaucrat working on the bill, “It will lay down the broad standards. Any agency which wants to collect this information will need to get enrolled or registered with a central body before it can start collecting data. It cannot share this data with anyone else. It also lays down the penalties in case anyone violates these terms.”

It also envisages the creation of a new agency – a standalone agency which will define privacy standards and monitor compliance. But, it is a long way off. The ministry wants to revise the Bill in the coming month, and then place the bill online for public comments, and then another round of interministerial consultations.

In the meantime, be careful. There is little by way of penalties that can be imposed on any organisation that shares your information with anyone.