Thursday, January 11, 2018

Aadhaar, a Unique ID for a Billion people: is it time to fall behind and move forward ?

Among the first documents you will have to acquire after you happen to migrate to the US or Canada is a Social Security/Insurance Number (SSN or SIN). This number is required for almost every public transaction starting from employment verification, payroll and taxes, engaging with financial institutions, banks and other businesses.

You will need the nine-digit number to apply for a driver’s license. Your landlord will ask for it to do a background check before renting you an apartment. Same goes for a bank or financial institution you wish to transact with. Although its primary purpose is to track individuals for Social Security purposes, the SSN has become a de facto national identification number in America for taxation and other purposes.

If like me, if you happen to be a returning-NRI, the similarity between the ubiquitous use of an SSN and Aadhaar in India will be striking. An Aadhaar card with a picture and bio-metric data takes it a step further from the SSN card.

After returning to India last year, my wife, son and I had to apply for an Aadhaar; and the application process was almost effortless. (link) We walked into a local ‘Bangalore one’ center with a couple of required documents and in about half-hour had completed the process. I got an SMS a few weeks later stating that our application had been approved, and received the card by post a few weeks after that.

Image result for aadhaar

Prior to migrating out of India, I had a PAN card, and a driving license, but it seems that for all practical purposes, an Aadhaar has become the de facto 'government id' document to have.

Identity for a billion people 

Growing up in India in the seventies and eighties, I remember the hoops the common-man used to jump through to acquire a government issued id. Ration cards were coveted documents issued selectively since they gave the holder the privilege of subsidized food-grains, rice, wheat, sugar, kerosene etc. PAN cards were the domain of the salaried class – primarily folks who paid income tax. Voter ID cards, driving licenses and other documents were selectively used by people who had access to them.

The common man neither had a permanent-roof over his head nor the documents to prove his residence and would spend a lifetime without a proof of identity.

On returning back to India recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see the pervasiveness of Aadhaar. Almost all urban residents from all walks of life seem to possess one. And those without it are slowly but steadily applying for it to ensure they can operate a bank account and continue to use a cellphone.

Of course, like many other digirati, I have also been following the controversy over Aadhaar and issues over privacy, though at times I am left wondering if all this is a storm in a teacup.

Privacy is a serious issue 

Citizens in western countries with SSN like systems are acutely aware of privacy issues surrounding digital identities and continue to address them. Identity theft happens at such a large scale that an entire industry has sprung up around “identity protection.” At periodic intervals, one reads of major security breaches at banks, financial institutions, retailers and other places of business. In 2017, sensitive personal information concerning 143 million American consumers with credit records was ‘exposed’ in a massive data breach at Equifax, one of the nation’s three major credit reporting agencies.

News of the breach led to a lot of outcry and congressional inquiries. While residents question the potential misuse and security breaches, the use of SSN as an individual’s primary source of identity is institutionalized and generally goes unquestioned.

Residents who want to deal with government agencies, financial and private organizations generally don’t have an option but to use the number. Technically, like an Aadhaar, the use of an SSN for nongovernmental transactions is voluntary, but guess how many Americans will risk turning down a loan offer, or a job just because they don’t wish, or are afraid to share their Social Security Number? Not as many as you think.

Issues surrounding privacy, and use of data certainly raises questions that policy makers need to address. A cross-section of Indians, however, seem to be finding fundamental issues with Aadhaar and the policies surrounding its implementation. As per media accounts, a number of petitions pending before the Indian supreme court include:
  • Petitions against making Aadhaar mandatory for social welfare schemes: Shantha Sinha & Anr. v. Union of India (W.P. (C) 342/2017) 
  • Pan card and Income Tax (Section 139AA): Binoy Visman v. Union of India (WP(C) 247/2017) and S.G. Vombatkere & Anr. v. Union of India (W.P.(C) 277/2017) 
  • Infringement of Right to Privacy (Article 21): Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) & Another v. Union of India (WP(C) 494/2012
  • Aadhar Act passed as a Money Bill: Jairam Ramesh v. Union of India (W.P.(C) 231/2016)
Some are questioning if this is a ‘voluntary’ or ‘mandatory’ Unique ID issued to residents of the country. Again, drawing parallels with the American SSN, let us make a hypothetical argument that acquiring and using an Aadhaar is ‘voluntary.’ Even if one assumes the use of Aadhaar is voluntary but continues to be pervasive as a basic proof of identity, one wonders how many Indians will stand on principles alone and refuse to use the UID? Perhaps a minority of the intelligentsia, with those with the mean and resources to acquire an alternate ID – a passport or a PAN card will.

Time to move forward, not look back

It is hard to say if the government will address all the challenges surrounding Aadhaar but one thing is for sure: rolling back to a time before Aadhaar like UID for Indians is unthinkable.

In the twenty-first century, a country with over billion citizen needs a centralized Unique Identification (UID) for its citizen. We are better off agreeing on the need for the Unique Identification, and focus our energies in ensuring its judicious use, and add checks-and-balances to ensure a design for privacy surrounding digital identities.

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