In recent days, radio listeners may have heard advertisements for a company called TrustID offering “India’s 1st Aadhaar based mobile app to verify your maid, driver, electrician, tutor, tenant and everyone else instantly”. The app boasts it can do this in "less than a minute". Its punchline: “Shakal pe mat jaao, TrustID pe jaao.” Don't go by the face, use TrustID.
Think about what this means. A private company is advertising that it can use Aadhaar to collate information about citizens at a price. It says this openly, even as a case about the privacy of the information collected for the biometrics-linked government database is still pending in the Supreme Court. Already, the court has told the government that it has to limit the uses of the Aadhaar number. Even the Bill that is to govern the project has still not yet been signed into law and will come up for discussion in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday.
This should not surprise anyone who has been watching how the project has been unfolding.
Thus far, the Aadhaar project, which seeks to database the whole population, has been marketed as a means of removing leakage and corruption and ghosts and duplicates in the welfare and subsidy system. The title of the law that was passed last week by the Lok Sabha – the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies and Services) Bill 2016 – is intended to evoke the idea that this is about the state gaining control over the welfare system.
Very little was heard about the interest private companies would have in this information data base. It is not until the 2016 Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha that we were told, expressly, that just about any person or company may draw on the Aadhaar system for its purposes. There are no qualifications or limits on who may use it and why. It depends on the willingness of the Unique Identification Author of India, which is undertaking the project, to let them become a part of the Aadhaar system.
During the debate in Lok Sabha, Congress MP Rajeev Satav, raised a question on clause 57 of the Aadhaar Bill which permits private entities – airlines, telecom, insurance, real estate companies – to use the Aadhaar number. Finance Minister Jaitley did not respond to the question. The ruling MPs passed the Bill within three hours, rejecting all proposed amendments.
This is part of the imagination that has spurred the project.
Nandan Nilekani, the former UIDAI head who has been the chief spokesperson for the project, called it, not an identity, but an "identity platform" on which apps may be built by any entrepreneur. In 2011, the Economics Times reported what Nilekani said in his address to dozens of software developers in Bangalore who were there for a "UID conference":
"It's really up to the imagination and innovation of the people … In some sense we believe it will be game changing...we don't see this project just as giving someone an ID card. This will create a national-level online identity management platform."
In 2012, in an interview to McKinsey & Company, Nilekani said:
"But what’s equally important is that we expect to see a lot more innovation because of the platform’s open API. That’s the best way to do this: the government builds the platform but makes it open so that individual creativity and entrepreneurship can build more solutions. Ultimately, what we’d like to accomplish in this role is to create a thriving application ecosystem around the platform. Over the next few years, we’d like to see more apps developed by both the public and private sectors…“
At an event held in New Delhi in 2013, he said:
“So that creates platforms…. Now, you have used government benefits to jumpstart this thing. But, once you create the link between the ID and the bank account, you can then start using it for commercial payments. .. that would then be a business to person thing. The next step would be person to person …”
These are just a few illustrations. In fact, several people working with the UIDAI in the initial years left to start ventures that will find ways of leveraging the Aadhaar platform. One instance is Srikanth Nadamuni who joined Khosla Labs, a Bay Area entrepreneurial venture, to expand the uses of Aadhaar.
In June 2015, there was an "Aadhaar application hackathon" mentored by “experts from UIDAI, Khosla Labs, AngelPrime and Morpho” to create apps based on the system.
This corporate ambition to exploit the business opportunities of this massive population database is now a part of the law that the government seems in a hurry to pass.
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