The Big Story: Biometric Big Brother

On January 4, the Tribune reported on a shocking security flaw in the Aadhaar project, the unique identity number being issued to Indian residents based on their biometric data. For the price of only Rs 500, a journalist was able to access the personal details of people enrolled in the programme. The report was widely discussed and it was expected that the Union government would explain what it was doing to fix the issue. Indeed, the Unique Identification Authority of India that runs the Aadhaar programme took immediate steps to secure its data, restricting the access of about 5,000 officials to the database.

In public, however, government agencies adopted a belligerent approach. The UIDAI claimed “misreporting” (a charge that the Tribune rebutted). The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party even tweeted to say that the data breach was “fake news”. Paradoxically, the UIDAI filed a First Information Report about the breach that names the reporter who broke the story and Tribune. Thus, after denying that there was a data breach, the government went on to start criminal proceeding against the press for reporting the data breach.

All in all, the incident reflected the chaos in the Union government in the face of growing fears about the safety of the critical biometric data millions of Indians have handed over to the UIDAI.

The Tribune report wasn’t an isolated instance. There is a growing body of evidence that points to grave flaws in the Aadhaar programme. On Monday, a report published in the Wire detailed how Aadhaar numbers allotted to a Pakistani spy and the Hindu god Hanuman are linked to cooking gas subsidies and bank accounts. The report also pointed out how third-party vendors that were incentivised to enrol people simply faked Aadhaar cards and added fictitious people into the programme. Thousands have since been blacklisted.

In response to rising criticism that Aadhaar is unable to perform the most basic task it had been built to do – verify the identity of a person seeking government services and subsidies – the UIDAI rolled out a face recognition feature. Face recognition is a nascent technology that even companies like Apple, with powerful iPhones have been unable to master. For Aadhaar to make it work – when basic fingerprint recognition often does not – will be very difficult. Moreover, given the fears of that Aadhaar will facilitate state surveillance, face recognition makes the anxieties more severe.

Far from recognising these fears, however, the Union government is busy brushing them under the carpet. On Monday, the chairman of the Telecom Authority of India published an article claiming that there has been no Aadhaar breach. The Former Unique Identification Authority of India Chairman Nandan Nilekani has characterised efforts to point to grave flaws in the data security of Aadhaar as an “orchestrated campaign”.

Aadhaar is the largest biometric identity programme of its kind anywhere in the world. Rather than denying the flaws in the programme or shooting the messenger, the Union government must publicly lay out a plan to fix the flaws or allow Indians to opt out of it in order to secure their privacy.

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  • Aadhaar is a form of supersurveillance, argues Suhrith Parthasarthy in the Hindu. It falls short in limiting biometrics collection to voluntary choice and in guaranteeing data protection.
  • Doubling farmers’ income by 2022 will require the Modi government to do much better than it has done in the past four years, writes Ashok Gulati in the Indian Express
  • Bhima Koregaon: Violence against Marathi Dalits is not new, but the Dalit reaction to it is changing, argues Sumeet Mhaskar in the Wire.


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Mannan says he is certain that if the ongoing exercise to update the National Register of Citizens is carried out honestly, Bangladeshi Muslims in Assam will be counted in thousands, not in lakhs.”