The American: Big Brother In Hindi?

(Credit: FT)

(Credit: FT)

The historic Aadhaar identity program puts India at the forefront of a technological revolution that is quietly reshaping the world.

For most Americans, nowhere are the repercussions of their nation’s increasingly insecure and outdated national identity systems more apparent than when they pass through security at the airport. In contrast to America’s struggles to adapt its decades-old systems to handle modern challenges, India is undertaking one of the grandest technology experiments ever attempted. In a massive, nationwide project, the government is attempting to collect the demographic information, fingerprints, and iris scans of all 1.2 billion residents.

With this information, the government hopes to issue a unique 12-digit “Aadhaar” (which means “foundation”) identity number to every man, woman, and child. If successful, India will build a major new piece of technological infrastructure for a modern economy, while fundamentally transforming the way residents interact with their government.

There are enormous logistical difficulties associated with the Aadhaar plan, as well as serious privacy and security risks. Doubts remain as to whether India’s people and institutions are prepared to handle the program’s massive enrollment process and dramatic impact.

Identifying the Problem

Proponents of the plan argue that it will lead to a fairer and more equitable distribution of public benefits. Currently, each governmental department works in isolation, maintaining its own separate databases and records. Over time, systematic corruption and mismanagement have populated these databases with fraudulent information. The Indian departments handling social support programs are often the most abused.

India’s federalist system of strong state governments, in addition to its national government, has resulted in each state and municipality exhibiting drastically different e-government capabilities. It is often in the poorest states where the worst abuses occur. Hundreds of millions of Indians rely on the help of the state, but there are still many places where most of the goods allocated for the poorest of families are stolen before they even reach them–and the social costs are enormous.

There is a major issue at the root of these problems—large portions of the population lack even the most basic verifiable identity documents. There are countless millions living on the margins of society who have yet to receive any official recognition from their state or national government. As a result, access to financial services remains extremely limited for most of the country, especially in rural areas.

For the poorest and most vulnerable groups, this lack of access is devastating; they are unable to receive their fair share of benefits, make investments, or accumulate savings. These families are just one disaster away from being entirely wiped out.

Reshaping and Reforming

Innovative banking technologies capable of reaching these marginalized groups could be built atop the national ID system, presenting an opportunity to reshape the nation and help lift hundreds of millions from poverty. Developers aim to create sophisticated Aadhaar-linked bank accounts that could allow for a system of digital payment, such that two villagers could send each other money with just their identity numbers and an Internet connection. The mobile phone market could offer a gateway for India’s masses into the financial system. With almost a billion cell phones in the country, more than twice as many Indians have access to a cell phone than a toilet.

India is a land of small businesses—and from every indication, mom-and-pop shops can’t wait to reap the benefits that Aadhaar has to offer. Residents’ ability to shop will no longer be limited by the amount of cash in their pockets. Additionally, unique identity numbers are the key to bringing multiple different personal records together. They can serve to facilitate beneficial services such as health insurance and background checks.

These technologies will also enable government agencies to directly target their benefits. Instead of the current inefficient cash distribution system, agencies will be able to electronically transfer money directly into a resident’s account. Residents will be free to choose where to buy their subsidized goods, and thus will gain purchasing power. This will create major incentives for distributors to adopt competitive, customer-oriented practices.

Aadhaar will allow for rigorous digital audit trails. For that reason, its supporters claim that it will lead to billions of dollars in savings for taxpayers and a greater degree of accountability in public distribution.

Unprecedented Undertakings

For India, Aadhaar represents not only a chance to better serve its people but also an opportunity to showcase its nascent technology prowess.

The prime minister of India selected Nandan Nilekani—a respected IT executive and the former CEO of IT outsourcing giant Infosys—to head the authority responsible for designing and implementing the new system. An unelected official, Nilekani has received the rank and status of a cabinet minister. A private executive involved in this level of Indian government is unprecedented.

Yet little about this program is business as usual. Government contracts in India are sometimes handed out based on connections or bribes. But when it came time to choose vendors for the first biometric enrollment phase, vendors had to compete with each other to see who could provide the cheapest, most accurate verifications. With a model rarely seen in government, three companies have been chosen and given 50 percent, 30 percent, and 20 percent of the duties—with the caveat that they will be continually reassessed and reassigned based on their performance.

Nilekani is looking to leverage India’s biggest public and private institutions in a partnership model, where dozens of different agencies will assist in the enrollment process. Post offices, banks, hospitals, agencies, and local NGOs—to name a few—will all serve as hubs where residents can go to enroll for their identity numbers. Those with no reliable documents can be “introduced” by a trusted party who can vouch for the person in question.

Nilekani’s stated goal is to enroll 600 million people in four years, an ambitious target that could become a reality if he can trigger a new standard for excellence in Indian government. As one of India’s most accomplished private executives, Nilekani has proven himself as a capable and ethical leader in the past. Yet he will face considerable infrastructural, technological, political, and cultural challenges along the way.

Immense Challenges Ahead

Of all the issues that a successful implementation will face, perhaps the single largest challenge is the colossal scale of the data involved.

The system needs to account for every single birth and death in a country where there are 1.8 million babies born every month. It needs servers capable of handling millions of identity verifications every day. The possibility of human error looms large over every step of the process: For example, there are reports that in some areas, enrollers have accidentally submitted their own biometrics when trying to demonstrate to others how the technology works. Due to a lack of coordination, some populations have had their biometric data collected by multiple different vendors and agencies.

Many question India’s ability to securely store such massive amounts of sensitive data. Developers are encouraging the nation’s largest public and private agencies to create their own extensive Aadhaar-based databases and smart cards, including biometric information. Unlike a credit card number or name, a person can never change his fingerprints or iris patterns. If stolen, his security may be forever compromised.

Although it has quickly become a technology powerhouse in the private sector, India lacks the types of data protection laws needed to handle modern-day technological security issues. The country’s institutions are years away from developing effective enforcement mechanisms, even though more than 200 million Aadhaar numbers have already been issued.

On top of these daunting challenges, parts of the country still lack reliable electricity, let alone an Internet connection. A national format for addresses and names does not exist. The powerful and entrenched Indian bureaucracy is made up of hundreds of different entities that will be required to update their systems and comply with procedures.

‘Big Brother’ in Hindi? 

Although enrollment is described as voluntary, in practice, residents will find it to be virtually obligatory. Many important public and private services have agreed to require an Aadhaar number for participation. If a resident chooses not to enroll, he will be denied the basic rights and entitlements he would have previously received.

Several of the most important public departments rely on the collection of sensitive data—like race, religion, caste, income, and health—in order to carry out their core functions. States use income information to allocate public goods, and poverty alleviation programs often target marginalized groups. Though well-intentioned, Aadhaar could facilitate surveillance and digitized discrimination of whole segments of the population, grouped by their undesirable characteristics.

For its part, the Indian government is already distributing state-of-the-art surveillance technologies to its military and police forces. It is unclear what can be done to prevent abuses of information by authorities—especially with so many different entities having access to portions of the information.

India’s politicians have been quick to show off Aadhaar as a symbol of progress in their commitment to fight corruption. Although its developers should be commended for their commitment to some levels of transparency, the program itself was created quickly and quietly. In the world’s biggest democracy, a program to collect personal, sensitive information from every individual was introduced and implemented with barely any public debate. It continues to exist without parliamentary sanction or judicial oversight.

Aadhaar may prove to be the most far-reaching and large-scale technology system ever to be implemented in a democratic nation, and it was done with almost no debate.

An Unresolved Matter

India faces a situation that may sound familiar to many Americans. The country has a group of states that share a porous border with an impoverished neighbor. For decades now, illegal immigrants have been coming across the border and inhabiting the border states or moving into the mainland cities. The local population is furious with the national government for allowing the influx of immigrants, and smuggling and ethnic violence have become increasingly intense. A border fence is being built, but it is insufficient and has largely been a failure.

India must decide how to handle the approximately 20 to 30 million illegal immigrants that have come from its northern neighbor, Bangladesh. In the last 50 years, India’s northeast front—a small group of eight states wedged between Myanmar and China—has experienced rapid demographic changes. Residents of the area have grown increasingly frustrated with New Delhi’s inability to stop what they have called a “foreign invasion.” This tension has led to brutal massacres, frequent strikes, and widespread instability.

Meanwhile, the trafficking of illegal goods has taken hold as the primary economy. Border security forces have found themselves consistently outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Maoist guerillas, local insurgents, and Pakistani-linked terrorist groups are thought to be recruiting and training in the area, actively plotting attacks on mainland cities. The ruling Congress Party is accused of aiding illegal immigrants with protective laws in exchange for a “vote-bank.” With the help of corrupt local officials, Bangladeshis reportedly have been able to secure rights and entitlements and move to other parts of the country.

The census data collection exercises include a question asking each resident his nationality. Alarmingly, the enumerator must accept the resident’s answer without challenge. Illegal immigrants all over the nation will be allowed to “declare” themselves Indian in the government’s primary information database. Once an “Indian” in the main, central database, it becomes much easier for an illegal immigrant to obtain other documents and services, many of which are used as proof in obtaining an Aadhaar number.

There are major concerns that this provision may inadvertently serve as a backdoor route to citizenship and voting rights for tens of millions of illegal immigrants. In many parts of the country, especially the northeast, this type of large-scale disruption may provoke more violence and further resentment. With no way to physically distinguish between citizens and legal and illegal immigrants, it is hard to envision any type of lasting stability in the region.

All Eyes on India:  The Global Implications

Any system that is able to overcome India’s abundance of challenges is likely to be studied and replicated all over the world. Security and development experts from many governments will be paying close attention to how India handles the difficulties posed by religious fundamentalists, foreign infiltrators, and corrupt, ineffective governance. The Obama administration has recently explored several ways to improve America’s outdated identity systems in an attempt to curb illegal immigration, improve national defense, and encourage commerce.

The Department of Homeland Security’s US-VISIT entry program is currently the largest biometric database in the world. In Aadhaar’s first enrollment phase, two of the three main providers of biometric technology to India are American companies. If this technology proves to be effective for wide-scale use, it may become commonplace for high-level transactions across the developed world, as well.

Much like in India, the issues of importance to concerned citizens in the United States should be the quality of public debate, the security and storage of personal data, the enforcement of a limited mandate, and the maintenance of personal liberties to the greatest extent possible. History has shown that the selective salesmanship of a program’s advantages without an honest admission of its dangers is bound to lead to a program that is viewed with suspicion, limited in use, and one data breach away from a full-blown scandal.

With its massive population, booming economy, and entrepreneurial spirit, India may offer to the world the ultimate case study for digital identity technologies. As these systems become ubiquitous, they are changing the definition of citizenship to include, for the first time, an electronic component. The historic Aadhaar identity program puts India at the forefront of a technological revolution that is quietly reshaping the world.


Tarun Wadhwa