Published: 14th June 2021
The Aadhaar Ambiguity: Why India's new Family ID plan has resurrected old fears
Is this just another form of a universal identification like Aadhaar that might result in state surveillance? Will it actually help welfare?
The Aadhaar, as a concept and as a card, has been criticised since its inception for being a tool for state surveillance and violation of privacy. The Supreme Court verdict of 2018 has said that the Aadhaar is not mandatory for financial services like bank accounts and mutual funds, but today, one would need it linked to their PAN card. But the government has reportedly come up with a new idea for a 'family ID' which will help deliver schemes to the people and keep a track of the beneficiaries in a family. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeiTY) along with the National Informatics Centre (NIC) and the National Informatics Centre Services Inc (NICSI) will study, develop and implement the project, government officials told a news portal last week.
Are we headed for Aadhaar 2.0?
Is this just another form of a universal identification like Aadhaar that might result in a hyperlinked social network that is easier to tap? Well, there is not much information that the government has given out yet. But whether it is a replacement or an addition, it will be a threat to privacy, said Praavita, a lawyer and a member of Rethink Aadhaar. "The proposal to make a universal family ID only highlights the failure of the Aadhaar system to address issues in welfare and its complete redundancy. It is possible that a new ID may cause exclusion of entire groups the way Aadhaar excluded the most vulnerable. The possibility of Aadhaar providing a 360-degree view of a household can undermine a families’ privacy and exposes them to greater harms including the potentially harmful predatory financial profiling," she added.
Why is it perceived as a threat?
Ria Singh Sawhney, a Supreme Court lawyer and researcher, said that we should remember that Aadhaar was promoted on the same premise of delivering welfare efficiently. Then why do we need one more ID? "The World Bank’s report misrepresented the expected 'savings' that Aadhaar would herald — and later quietly rescinded this grossly inflated figure. It was clear that those who benefited the most from Aadhaar were private players building 'stacks' on top of the digital identity — the FinTech industry, the private health industry and many more. The same questions should be asked here — who benefits?" said Ria and asked, "If Aadhaar hasn’t helped them keep tabs and disburse relief better, how is a new ID system going to work?"
How much of a threat is it actually?
Reetika Khera, an Associate Professor of Economics at IIT Delhi and the author of Dissent on Aadhaar: Big Data Meets Big Brother among other books, said, "It is even more dangerous to map individuals into families than just mapping individuals to a number. It takes surveillance to an unprecedented level."
How do these systems work?
Researcher Srinivas Kodali said that the central system has to access statewide data and each state will have to have a data bank like Haryana, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana do. "Family ID is to interlink various government databases to identify how much welfare each family gets as benefits and how much they pay back in taxes. They want to balance govt spending and taxes. These IDs are essentially a way to measure people and their actions. But at the same time, they are creating 360-degree profiles of citizens, which the government has access to," said Srinivas. "This is inter-linked to the NPR, household databases as part of census and the idea of building a real-time database of citizens. These are all inter-linked databases and one doesn't exist without the other. They are trying to re-verify Aadhaar data with family ID," said the researcher with the Free Software Movement of India.
Even though the government has assured that the data collected under Aadhaar or any of these schemes are well protected, IT Grids, a company that was employed to develop AP and Telangana's Seva Mitra app, had stored the data of 7.82 crore people from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, leading to a furore.
Is a national database important for welfare?
Reetika has a popular lecture service which she titled, Welfare needs Aadhaar like a fish needs a bicycle. "Another early piece of fiction was that the purpose of Aadhaar is to help welfare schemes. The truth is closer to the reverse: Welfare schemes have been used to promote Aadhaar (by creating mass dependence on it), irrespective of the consequences. As it happens, the consequences so far have been disastrous. If the name of a worker employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is spelt differently in his job card and Aadhaar card, he is at risk of not being paid. If an old widow’s age happens to be understated on her Aadhaar card, she may be deprived of the pension that keeps her alive. For the public distribution system, Aadhaar is a calamity: In Jharkhand and Rajasthan, millions of people are deprived of their food rations every month due to technical problems related to Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA), according to the government’s own data," she writes in an article for a reputed English daily.
Why would a consolidated data bank be a bad idea?
"Any system like this is going to repeat and amplify the harms that Aadhaar continues to cause — exclusions, arbitrary decisions, opacity, and incursions into the fundamental right to privacy. Introducing systems for 'automated' selection of beneficiaries would exacerbate these problems. Automated decision-making systems are very likely to have built-in biases which disproportionately affect persons at risk," said Ria. "The privacy threat is not to be dismissed either. We are yet to see a strong user-focused data protection law. Any database defined as a 'single source of truth' is a disproportionate surveillance threat, and fails the proportionality test laid out in the Puttaswamy judgment on the right to privacy. This has a grave impact on how freely people are able to express themselves and the right to dissent," she added.
What's the alternative?
If Aadhaar is not the answer, what is? Ria said that the pandemic was a sobering reminder of how vital social security is. The young layer said that what people need is better resourced and more transparency, accessibility and accountability in existing schemes, not just new technological solutions. "The pandemic has pushed thousands of families into distress and poverty and shown us how universal and easy access to the right to work and right to food were the few support systems which served the marginalised populations during the first wave of the pandemic," she said and added, "The government should be focused on removing barriers to accessing these rights, and to increase transparency and grievance redressal systems to make sure these programmes run better and are easier to access. Any scheme or data project that would coerce families to obtain yet another id or make families dependent on qualifying in some opaque centralised database that automatically includes or excludes them, offers little to no redress. This also makes them jump through hoops to qualify and stay on the registry."