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Opponents of the massive biometric program worry about a dystopian future.
Will the world’s largest democracy curb the world’s largest biometric identity program? Earlier this month, India’s Supreme Court began hearings on the future of Aadhaar, a 12-digit identification number linked to an individual’s fingerprints and iris scans that has become ubiquitous in the country. Aadhaar means “base” or “foundation” in Hindi.
The case reflects a larger debate that pits a committed group of activists against the Indian government and a clutch of technology evangelists. In court, the lead lawyer for the Aadhaar skeptics described the biometric identity as “an electronic leash” that “reduces citizens to servitude.” Other critics cite enrollment difficulties, shoddy privacy standards, and potential government snooping on private citizens.
Advocates portray Aadhaar as a technological breakthrough that empowers the poor, streamlines the delivery of government subsidies, and slashes opportunities for graft and tax evasion. Shekhar Gupta, a prominent journalist and commentator, says most anti-Aadhaar activists belong to an “upper-crust, upper-class, wine ’n’ cheese, Netflix-watching social-media elite.”
The idea of a unique biometric identification for every resident of India is the brainchild of Nandan Nilekani, a technology billionaire recruited to government in 2009 by the then-ruling Congress Party. After five years helming the program, Mr. Nilekani stepped down shortly before Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, but the former tech tycoon remains Aadhaar’s most prominent champion.
Over tea and dried apricots at his home on a tree-lined Bangalore street, Mr. Nilekani dismisses activist concerns as narrowly elitist. “On the ground, Aadhaar is very well accepted,” he says.
This acceptance makes it unlikely that judges will scrap or significantly roll back a program that already provides proof of identity to 1.2 billion residents and has funneled more than $12 billion of government subsidies to 500 million Aadhaar-linked bank accounts. The system is quickly becoming essential for everything from acquiring a cellphone number to registering a marriage.
The debate about Aadhaar oscillates between two poles. Kiran Jonnalagadda of Internet Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group, believes the program “should be declared unconstitutional and shut down.” This would mean deleting all fingerprints and iris scans collected over the past nine years.
Critics also point to several high-profile snafus. Last year police uncovered a racket in the northern city of Kanpur that used stolen fingerprints to churn out fake Aadhaar cards. In another case, the telecom company Airtel opened bank accounts in an affiliated bank for more than three million cellphone customers without their consent and funneled about $29 million of government cooking-gas subsidies to these accounts.
Earlier this year, the Unique Identification Authority of India, the government body that runs the Aadhaar program, lodged a police complaint against a journalist for a story about how she accessed cardholders’ personal data by paying an anonymous seller on WhatsApp 500 rupees ($7.80). Last year, an 11-year-old girl reportedly died of starvation after officials in the tribal-dominated state of Jharkhand canceled a card that entitled her family to food rations for not being linked to Aadhaar. (Authorities say the girl died of malaria.)
On Twitter , the hashtags #AadhaarFail and #DestroyTheAadhaar document a steady stream of blunders. They portray a dystopian technology that places ordinary lives in the hands of a state that’s callous, clumsy and sometimes cruel. Earlier this month, the fugitive American hacker Edward Snowden joined the anti-Aadhaar chorus, warning on Twitter against “the natural tendency of government to desire perfect records of private lives.”
For Aadhaar proponents, the benefits of the technology easily outweigh the costs. Mr. Nilekani says the government needs to tighten data protection, but that high-profile leaks are not a uniquely Indian phenomenon. According to him, it’s not surprising that a program as vast as Aadhaar has had some “implementation issues,” but that these will likely be ironed out over time.
Mr. Nilekani points out that many of those fiercely opposed to sharing personal details with the Indian government through Aadhaar willingly share vast amounts of information with the likes of Google and Facebook . He also finds mistrust of the government overblown. “You’re questioning the legitimacy of the state,” he says. “In the U.S. do you ask why you should have a Social Security number?”
This gets at a larger point. India’s debate on Aadhaar is taking place against a backdrop of growing worries about the direction of its democracy. So far Mr. Modi’s government has shown little evidence that it cares particularly about freedom of speech, freedom of the press or minority rights.
In India, government-friendly fake-news sites and propaganda channels regularly attack politicians, intellectuals or activists they deem “antinational.” Officials of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have filed criminal defamation complaints against journalists for unfavorable stories. An organized army of trolls smear critics on social media.
Reetika Khera, an anti-Aadhaar activist who teaches economics at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, attacks the widespread mandatory use of Aadhaar. She says the system makes it possible for the government to create a “360 degree virtual panopticon,” with data on virtually every aspect of a person’s life.
Aadhaar critics may not win their battle in the Supreme Court. But they are raising legitimate concerns about the future.
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