Identity Project

Now, even the fingerprints of urban Indians are failing during Aadhaar authentication

With Aadhaar verification being insisted upon for bank accounts, mobile numbers and income tax returns, even the affluent are feeling the pinch of exclusion.

Bengaluru resident Shashidhar Rao went to an Airtel store last month to get his Aadhaar number linked to his mobile connection. He had received repeated reminders from the telecom operator, which, along with other carriers, have been warning users to re-verify their connections by linking them to their 12-digit unique identity numbers to avoid discontinuation of services.

But when Rao placed his fingerprints on the reader, they showed up as invalid. “I tried a thousand times, with every single finger,” said Rao. Nothing worked.

Employees at the Airtel store told him he would need to get his biometrics updated. But when Rao went to an Aadhaar enrolment kiosk operated by BangaloreOne, a company set up by the Karnataka government to help citizens with technology-related matters, he ran into a different problem. “They told me that they are not able to capture my fingerprints, and asked me, ‘What do we do?’. I said to them, ‘You tell me what to do.’”

When he called the Aadhaar helpline, an agent asked him for his enrolment number from when he applied four years ago. Rao said the agent then told him, “We don’t have any records for you.”

Biometric authentication lies at the heart of the Aadhaar project. The government has argued that by creating a database of citizens’ biometrics, which can be used to verify their identities, Aadhaar helps prevent leakage of funds in welfare schemes like subsidised food ration supplies.

But authentication failures – because of incorrectly captured fingerprints, poor internet connectivity or a change in biometric details because of old age or wear and tear – have already caused disruption in rural India. Cases of vulnerable people being left out of the ambit of welfare schemes because of Aadhaar have been widely reported over the last two years.

Within urban India, until this year, the debate over Aadhaar was limited to security and privacy concerns related to providing biometric data to the government. But now, with the government asking people to link their banks accounts, mobile phone connections and Permanent Account Numbers used for income tax purposes with Aadhaar, the practical difficulties of biometric authentication have begun to pinch even affluent urban Indians.

Can’t put a finger on it

When Pune resident Yogesha S, who works for a public sector company, tried to link his bank account to Aadhaar, he was informed that his 12-digit number had been deactivated because of biometric mismatch issues. “I went to get a SIM card also and got the same error,” he said.

He went to an Aadhaar enrolment centre to get his fingerprints updated twice. Both times, he was sent a new Aadhaar card, indicating the process had been successful. But when he tried to link his PAN with his Aadhaar number and phone number, his Aadhaar card still showed up as deactivated. He said he contacted an Aadhaar helpline two months ago but there has been no movement on his complaint since.

In Delhi, Priya Talwar, who had moved to the city with her family recently, also faced trouble with biometric verification when she tried to get her daughter’s address changed on her Aadhaar card. “My daughter has a condition called hyperhidrosis, which makes her palms and fingers sweat a lot, so her fingerprints did not work with the scanner,” she said.

Talwar said that the enrolment centre did not give her daughter the option getting her iris scanned for biometric verification, even though the Unique Identification Authority of India takes both fingerprints and iris scans from citizens signing up under the Aadhaar project.

Talwar said her daughter will turn 16 soon and needs to update her Aadhaar information to apply for documents like driving licence and passport. “She does have other ID documents, but seeing how important Aadhaar has become, I thought it would be useful to get it updated.”

Talwar’s mother also faced a similar problem while trying to get her mobile number linked with Aadhaar – the biometric scanner could not authenticate any of her fingers. The person operating the scanner said that her fingerprints could have faded because of age, a problem that many senior citizens have faced. In light of such complaints, the government has reportedly recommended a one time password-based authentication system or iris scans for the elderly for linking their Aadhaar numbers with their mobile phones.

Biometric authentication failures

In an interview to the Hindu Business Line, Nandan Nilekani, the first chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, said that when seeding and authentication are done properly, biometric verficiation is always successful.

Critics argue otherwise. In a lengthy rebuttal to the interview, software engineer and privacy activist Anand Venkatanarayanan pointed out that even if the mismatch rates are low, they usually “cluster around” vulnerable groups of citizens, like old people or labourers with worn out hands and cracks in their skin that make fingerprint authentication a problem.

An old woman in Gujarat showed the cracked skin of her palms. Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav
An old woman in Gujarat showed the cracked skin of her palms. Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav

Supreme Court order misunderstood

The problems with biometric authentication have only become amplified since mobile carriers have started requiring users who signed up with ID other than an Aadhaar number to begin linking their Aadhaar too. This followed a government notification which said that the Supreme Court had ruled to require Aadhaar linking of all mobile connections.

This is not true. The Supreme Court only observed that a system for verifying mobile connections would have to be created in the following year but did not mandate the use of Aadhaar numbers for such verification. The Department of Telecommunications then interpreted this as a “direction” to link Aadhaar numbers and issued a notification ordering to telecom providers to comply.

In turn, telecom providers are incorrectly stating in their warning messages to customers that the Supreme Court itself has ordered that their Aadhaar number be linked to their mobile connections. The Court’s judges have been personally witness to the misinterpretation of their judgement – in a recent hearing, when the government tried to argue that the existence of such false SMS messages were hearsay, Justice Sikri responded, “We all know what’s happening. We are seeing those messages too.”

The court is currently hearing a petition seeking the quashing of the Department of Telecommunication’s notification on linking mobile numbers with Aadhaar. The Department has said it will not take action against any customers for not linking their numbers till the case is concluded.

Telecom operators on their part claim they are following the Department of Telecommunications’ orders on getting phone numbers linked with Aadhaar. While the Supreme Court has taken up the case, it has not ordered a stay on the linking process.

Though the threats by banks and telecom companies are continuing, recent messages reviewed by Scroll.in have updated their wording to remove the reference to the Supreme Court. Not all of them, however, are complying with a more recent Supreme Court order to clearly mention the deadline of February 6, 2018, for linking Aadhaar with mobile phones and December 31 this year for bank accounts.

Why not OTPs?

From December, the Unique Identification Authority of India has announced that one time passwords can be used in place of biometric authentication for verifying mobile phone numbers using Aadhaar. One-time-passwords sent through SMS, while riddled with their own security problems, seem to be a less exclusionary alternative to biometric authentication. Venkatanarayanan, the privacy activist, however, pointed out that this may not always be true, since India has low teledensity.

But that’s a problem that biometric authentication has as well, since fingerprint readers need to have Internet connectivity to confirm citizens’ biometrics. As several news reports have highlighted, rural citizens are literally climbing trees to authenticate their ration entitlements. Unlike biometric authentication, however, one time passwords don’t require citizens to visit a physical bank branch or mobile carrier’s store.

For now, most people facing Aadhaar authentication troubles have pinned their hopes on the Supreme Court. It is currently hearing a batch of petitions challenging the mandatory linking of Aadhaar with PAN, bank accounts and mobile connections. Asked what he planned to do next, Rao, the Bangalore resident who had been turned away by Airtel as well as an Aadhaar enroller, said: “I’ll wait for the verdict.”

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.