Data nightmare

Interview with Dipa Sinha, right to food campaigner.

Published : Apr 12, 2017 12:30 IST

Dipa Sinha.

Dipa Sinha.

THE right to food campaigner Dipa Sinha feels India is staring at a data nightmare. With the Central government making all efforts to bring all the citizens on to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) platform, two issues threaten the project: exclusions and a lack of clarity on how to plug leakages. The idea is being sold to people as a tool to reduce corruption but according to Dipa Sinha, the only thing it is doing right now is keeping people away from what they are entitled to. Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline :

There is a lot of confusion around notifications being issued with deadlines for Aadhaar enrolment.

The government has issued a large number of notifications, for 91 schemes at last count, including the public distribution system [PDS], pension and MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act], even after the Supreme Court’s orders and clarifications. Several of them have June 30 as the deadline for either enrolment or getting an acknowledgment that one has applied for Aadhaar. In case someone still does not have it then the organisation where Aadhaar is required has to make arrangements to see that one is enrolled. Until June 30, other identity cards can be used. The only thing about which they did respond was the midday meal scheme as it became a big issue with people who generally do not talk about Aadhaar being a problem also taking a stand. There was a seeming “retraction” of the midday meal notification but it only said that it must be ensured that children are enrolled for Aadhaar and not that Aadhaar will be fully voluntary. The government issued a press release saying “Yes, it is wrong to mandate Aadhaar for midday meal”, but went on to repeat what the notification said, that children desirous of getting the welfare benefit under the scheme needed to undergo Aadhaar authentication. So, in essence, the notification was not withdrawn. They are simply giving you time and making it easier for you to get Aadhaar. For now, schools are closing for summer. We will know the full impact of this only when they reopen.

Are people falling outside the welfare net owing to discrepancies in Aadhaar?

There are two kinds of exclusions happening because of Aadhaar. Firstly, in Delhi we saw during the initial days of Aadhaar enrolment for the PDS that only those members who had an Aadhaar card were included. This affects the entitlement as the quantity of foodgrains received under the National Food Security Act is on a per capita basis. In 2013-14, when the new ration cards were distributed, a number of people, mainly children, the disabled and the elderly, were not included on the ration card as they did not have Aadhaar. Later, as people got enrolled under Aadhaar, they demanded that their names be included in the ration cards. But now, for the PDS the Delhi government has said that the quota of 42 per cent is full and new names can be enrolled only when older names are cancelled. So now we have a situation where families identified as poor by the Delhi government have to lose 5 kg or more of grain because the names of some of their family members are not there on the ration card.

Secondly, the government is making Aadhaar mandatory supposedly to reduce leakages by de-duplication. While some leakages might have been happening by registering fake, or ghost, beneficiaries, we do not know how many fakes existed. The numerous verification exercises have shown fewer than 10 per cent fakes. Besides, authentication failures are happening on a large scale because of technical glitches and the government has no way of solving these. For instance, when (say) Raju goes to get ration and puts his finger on the machine, the machine tries to recognise his fingerprint with the one existing in the system. In many cases, the system refuses to authenticate owing to faulty image or because the biometrics have not been captured properly. Fingerprints change for manual labourers, children and the elderly. Almost 30 per cent of the people are not getting grains because of authentication failure. The government has no way of recording this. In response to a Right to Information query, the government said it did not have records of this. On the basis of this, tall claims are being made about how thousands of crores of rupees have been saved by the Finance Minister, Nandan Nilekani and Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] leaders. In Rajasthan, we had a situation where they said if for three months your biometrics did not match, then you would be declared a “ghost”. So it is a big scam. In the case of children whose biometrics change, chances of failure are higher. Now until the age of five there is no fingerprint, so fingerprinting cannot be done. Between ages five and 15, the government says biometrics should be updated regularly. For instance, if at the age of six a child got his Aadhaar and at age nine his biometrics do not match, then are they going to stop his scholarship or midday meal? Why should parents take their children for updating biometrics often when the government has admitted children’s biometrics are not formed?

How does making Aadhaar compulsory for filing income tax returns or for pension fund affect citizens?

Mandating Aadhaar for non-welfare benefits, which the Supreme Court has not allowed but the government is forcing, makes it even more clear that it is being done to bring people on to the system. If my PAN, bank account and telephone are linked to Aadhaar, then everything I do, the state knows. I don’t know what they are doing with the data or who they are sharing them with, as the provisions for this in the Aadhaar Act are weak. There is nothing in the Act that provides me safeguards against misuse and I cannot even approach a court directly in case of misuse as only the UIDAI is authorised to approach courts in case of misuse of Aadhaar data, which is a conflict of interest. It all boils down to civil rights and liberties. By linking all my information to one number and generating authentication records, which will be stored for five years with the government, the State is generating a lot of metadata, which may reveal my personal details. Even if I do not do anything illegal, disparate pieces of metadata can be misused to show patterns which may not be true. The state will know where I am eating, what I am having for dinner, where I am travelling, what I am buying, and so on.

Reliance has taken unique identification for all Jio connections. What is it doing with the data? Online data of Aadhaar have been leaking through illegally stored biometrics as well as simple Google searches for bank details and Aadhaar numbers. There is a company, trustID, which advertised that it will do background checks for hiring based on Aadhaar. Now, one may not want to reveal something for employment with a firm, which may not necessarily be illegal, but how much choice does a job applicant have? But this firm will put together all the data and create a profile of you, as a parallel database. As it is, it is unfortunate that a lot of our data are on Google through smartphones and the global positioning system. But there is a difference between powers of a corporation and the powers of a government, which may coerce you, imprison you, and deprive you of your rights. Also I can opt out of Google and Facebook, can I opt out of dealing with my government? These are ways of forcing citizens to enrol without putting in place a foolproof system of data protection. There is no proper law on how data can be shared, especially with private players. The [Narendra Modi] government has argued in the Aadhaar case in the Supreme Court that citizens have no fundamental right to privacy. So, making it compulsory for filing income tax returns or for pension fund leaves citizens with no choice.

What, according to you, is the intent behind making Aadhaar the only identification number?

It is clear that it is not to plug leakages but 100 per cent coverage, so it seems like this is being done for surveillance purposes. The government is mandating Aadhaar for Bhopal gas tragedy victims, for women rescued from trafficking and sexual assault, for HIV/AIDS patients to get medicines. If this is being done to reduce leakages, then where, for instance, is there a problem of duplication in the case of medicines for HIV/AIDS patients? Should that not be established first before making Aadhaar mandatory? Even if there is a problem, what percentage of people are being inconvenienced to fix that?

What has been the experience of similar schemes in other places?

There is no country in the world where a biometric based identification system is used for so many purposes in this manner. The Social Security Number in the United States has important differences with the way Aadhaar is laid out, the most important being that it is not an identity number. It does not collect biometrics and it is protected by strict laws around who can share the data. The scale at which Aadhaar is done has not happened anywhere else. Even in the United Kingdom, where it was proposed, and implemented in 2006-07, the government destroyed the database seeing the potential risks involved, an aspect the Parliamentary Committee on Finance in India recognised in 2011.

What is the status of the High Court case filed by the Right to Food Campaign?

Our case is about how the government is violating the Supreme Court orders by making Aadhaar mandatory for welfare schemes. The High Court has asked the government to file its response to the petition. It is supposed to do this by mid April and then a hearing will be held. A Karnataka High Court judgment in the context of PDS says how Aadhaar cannot be mandatory.

A recent Right to Information query revealed that more than 85 lakh Aadhaar numbers have been cancelled.

Aadhaar can be suspended when biometrics or other data have not been updated. An SMS is usually sent by way of informing. Most of the cancelled numbers are those of children, possibly for non-updation of fingerprint data. The government does not have enough manpower, resources or technical know-how to check or correct the flaws that occur in the system. There is no official data on how many people fall out of the welfare net because they do not have Aadhaar. In the public distribution system and pension schemes, whatever micro data are available, 25-30 per cent seems to be Aadhaar-related exclusion.


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