Shankkar Aiyar, political economy analyst, columnist and author, is launching his second book ‘Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution’. The Marathi, Hindi and Telugu editions of the book will be released soon. Aiyar speaks to Prajakta Joshi about the world’s largest biometric identification platform, its potential and the perceptions.
Why do you call Aadhaar a 12-digit revolution?
Aadhaar is a revolution in the making and has the potential to deliver revolutionary results in governance. For decades the effort to deliver benefits to the poorest was obstructed by a lack of identity or by fakes and duplicates - trillions of rupees never reached intended beneficiaries. Aadhaar’s smart biometric identity platform enables targeted delivery of entitlements and access to services.
The linkage of Aadhaar has delivered benefits - primarily weeding out of fakes and duplicates. The government claims savings of over Rs 35,000 crore in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Ideally, the government should assess savings as also data on fakes, forgeries and duplicates and put it in public domain.
What about systemic issues of Aadhaar? Many activists worry beneficiaries are being excluded.
It is true that there are systemic deficiencies. These issues have been raised in the Epilogue of my book. The government must improve capacity, infrastructure, especially connectivity, at village level to enable the platform to be effective. It is important for government to conduct preparedness studies when there is any expansion.
The govt has been accused of using Aadhaar platform for surveillance. Law enforcement agencies in other countries seem to have data on people including DNA etc so why this opposition?
As of now the government cannot leverage the platform to snoop on citizens (for instance the bank knows the Aadhaar number but Aadhaar platform does not know bank account number). To use it as a surveillance platform govt will have to amend the law to connect the dots through linkages. The easier way for govt is to use using existing laws and smartphone usage.
First, Aadhaar has only your fingerprints, iris scan and name-age-gender-address. Also, the issue here is the need for a law, regulatory process and an autonomous body under Parliament so that people are protected both from political regimes and from private companies which collect data.
Many issues are being raised about Aadhaar breaching people’s privacy. Is the Aadhaar system really vulnerable?
The issue of data vulnerability is real and some issues are presently being addressed. The problem was that RTI Act calls for revealing of details of beneficiaries while Aadhaar Act bars disclosure. However, the Ministries have been sensitised now. Personal and Aadhaar info is now being encrypted but for the last four digits as done by banks.
The concerns about citizen state relationship, the emergence of a surveillance state, big brother are legitimate in any democracy. India urgently needs a data protection and privacy law - my book has argued for this and an autonomous body to oversee its enforcement.
The good news is that Aadhaar has now focussed attention on privacy. The need for law is not just about Aadhaar but about zetabytes of data emitted by people carrying connected devices. People need protection from the state as much as from those monopolising data.
What do you think of the linking of Pan Card and Aadhaar and the fears around it?
The decision to link Pan Card with Aadhaar follows a recommendation of SIT on black money which wanted robust mechanism for identification and was referred to in the Supreme Court. This was also done to ensure cleaning the system of fake/duplicates. This has agitated people. However it is useful to remember that while the Income Tax Department has person’s Pan No, Bank Account No and Aadhaar No as well as financial details, the Aadhaar platform does not have any other detail. There are provisions in the IT Act that allow under some conditions the government to intercept data. And data off phones/laptops are far easier and richer in details.