The Economist: Laying The Foundation

(Credit: NYTimes)

(Credit: NYTimes)

India’s ambitious plan for a national biometric system must balance security concerns with respect for civil liberties

A country with no national format for street addresses, 1.2 billion people with no standard form of personal identification, an electrical grid that leaves whole swathes of the nation in the dark and a plan to create the most advanced national biometric system ever implemented.

The premise of India’s Aadhaar program (meaning “foundation”) reads like a Hollywood trailer, and it is indeed bureaucratic high-drama. Just consider the dangers: Unlike a credit card number, a person can never change his or her biometrics. If stolen, personal security may be forever compromised.

And there are reasons to doubt India’s ability to securely store such massive amounts of sensitive data; although a technology powerhouse in the private sector, India lacks meaningful data-protection laws. An overhaul that was supposed to accompany the rollout of Aadhaar has yet to materialize.

Moreover, several of the most important public departments rely on the collection of sensitive personal data, like race, religion, caste, income and health, in order to carry out their core functions.

Combined with digital technologies, the sort of “profiled” surveillance that has led to protests in the developed world is all but assured in India, where the government is already distributing state-of-the-art surveillance technologies to their military and police forces. A firewall between these two initiatives seems unlikely.

But, as seen in the West, there are two sides to the privacy/security argument, and some government officials are already making plans to leverage Aadhaar in the fight against domestic threats. One major proposal would combine 21 different databases containing travel, financial, criminal, and property information with eleven security and intelligence agencies.

The plan is moving forward in spite of concerns over such plans, with more than three million numbers issued to date. Other nations are watching the process closely, and if Aadhaar proves effective in the fight against illegal immigration, the developed world may one day be producing their own sequels.

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Tarun Wadhwa