Identity Under Attack


P Bandhu & T G Jacob

Like many others we too were coerced into applying for and obtaining our respective Aadhaar numbers towards the end of 2017. Having received umpteen messages on our mobiles to seed our bank accounts with the required number we did rightly fear not being able to access them, if we did not comply. We had already forgone LPG subsidy for a couple of years for the lack of the same despite a Supreme Court interim order of 2013 that the Central and State governments must not deny essential services and benefits solely on the basis of non- enrolment in the project. The experience of obtaining the requisite numbers made us research on and ponder a little more over the background to this whole exercise.

While we are happy to note that there is a great deal of dissent with respect to various aspects of this project of centralising data of Indian residents without any public debate by civil liberties organisations, concerned researchers and citizens in general, who question its purpose, necessity, legality and compliance with constitutionally given rights, the fact remains that as a population we have allowed ourselves to be bulldozed into acquiescence in the same way as we sheep-like submitted to the demonetisation exercise prior to this. What is actually called for is mass public resistance, as has happened in some other countries in the case of similar attempts by governments, which has also been successful in thwarting such exercises. In the absence of such mass resistance, indeed civil disobedience, of which we do have a hoary tradition, the government under pressure from and in the interests of a few behind-the-scenes entities is being able to impose its will and diktat on millions and make them suffer.

As pointed out by concerned observers identifying individuals on the basis of certain physical/biometric characteristics was pioneered by criminologists/anthropologists/police officers in France, England and colonial India. Carrying out such an exercise on a mass scale effectively criminalises an entire society and puts its people under surveillance for any potential action, which may not be in the interests of the power holders and wielders. Anxiety and a fear psychosis is sought to be created to make it easier to manipulate the people and to enable their suppression by the government which is acting in collusion with money bags. The money-making ventures in this case, that is, the companies awarded the contract for the purchase of biometric devices and entrusted with the implementation of the project are with the exception of Mahindra Satyam, local agencies contracted to register the data and sundry small businesses, by and large not located and owned within this country but are largely West European or US based. Data related to the resident population of India kept online in the Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR) is on cyber clouds under foreign, and not Indian, jurisdiction. This means that not only is it accessible to the various ministries of our government but also to imperialist governments and their intelligence agencies, global banks, international financial institutions and corporations (digital security businesses, e-commerce companies) and can be used in their interests. Since the 1980s the IMF has been working towards making surveillance by it and the World Bank Group acceptable to governments so that it could better advise them on macro-economic policies and oversee their implementation. It seems the US is trying to use the WTO platform to demand free access to Indian residents' database. It is strange indeed to find the project being assiduously implemented by a vociferously nationalistic government.

The idea and process of issuing national identity cards harks back to the 1980s, seemingly for national security reasons. Identity cards had begun to be issued in districts of border areas and the process was taken forward to cover the entire country in the aftermath of the Kargil skirmish (1999) with Pakistan on the recommendation of the Kargil Review Committee (2000). The then NDA government began a process of issuing Multi-Purpose National Identity Cards (MNIC) for citizens in an effort to curb illegal migration from neighbouring countries. Getting MNICs was made mandatory for citizens under an amendment in 2003 of the Citizenship Act of 1955, the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards), the rules of which fail to provide information confidentiality unlike the Census Act. Simultaneously, a NATGRID (National Intelligence Grid) was envisaged to enable 11 security agencies unaccountable to parliament, such as RAW, IB, NIA, CBI, Enforcement Directorate, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and Narcotics Control Bureau, Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System etc, to access 21 categories of databases which include railway and air travel, income tax, phone calls, bank account details, credit card transactions, visa and immigration records, property records and driving licenses. Together with the tracking of individuals which this enables we have the possibilities of using Artificial Intelligence (IE) and social media to identify and mark dissenters and dissenting groups. These are some of the tools that can be and are being used to enable the functioning of a police state.

In 2009, the MNIC project was replaced through executive notification by the UPA government with the extremely high-cost tax payer funded UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) project (now renamed AADHAAR meaning support). Since the time of the last Census a mandatory National Population Register has been launched, in which all residents of India above 15 years of age are expected to be registered with personal data and biometric identification. The two databases are being interlinked to enable de-duplication, though such data sharing goes against provisions of the Census Act. There is also an idea to link the Aadhaar numbers with voter id cards and EVMs (electronic voting machines), which would leave the way open for electoral surveillance. It must be kept in mind that EVMs themselves are known to be susceptible to hacking and can easily be tampered with to get the desired electoral results. At the time of setting it up with public funds the privatisation of the UIDAI was also envisaged to allow it to part for a price with the data it 'owns' to government and private entities.

The National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 was criticised and rejected on various counts, not least due to the uncertain and unreliable technology involved, by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance in 2011, to which it had been referred after being introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2010. At that time the government did not attempt to modify the bill and bring it back for parliamentary approval, but illegally proceeded to implement the scheme. As an opposition party the BJP had also opposed the Bill and its provisions. But once in power at the Centre it deviously introduced in March 2016 the same as a Money Bill under the different name of Aadhaar and got it passed in the Lok Sabha where it has a majority. By so doing it bypassed the Bill's scrutiny in the Rajya Sabha and any amendment proposals by it.

The Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 is claimed to assure financial inclusion and efficient delivery of subsidies, benefits and services by government agencies. It is also claimed to curb corruption in welfare programmes like PDS, MGNREGS, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and so on. That this vast centralised bureaucratic scheme is riddled with problems of grassroots implementation —that it cannot obviate corruption, gives undue power to not always very service minded officials and others to decide whether biometrics match or not, that illegal migrants can obtain Aadhaar cards and so on—has been sufficiently exposed by journalists, activists, legal professionals, politicians, cyber experts etc, some of who also filed public interest petitions challenging its legality in the Supreme Court.

Contrary to the claim of it being a device for inclusion we find that ever since its inception many vulnerable sections of society found themselves excluded at least for some time, which can be taken as a saving for the government in outlays for its various welfare schemes, at the same time as it is increasing defence and security related expenditure and subsidising bad loans (so- called non-performing assets) of various corporates. By linking this project with the problematic Direct Benefits Transfer Initiative the small funds of millions are brought into the credit economy, which works largely to benefit the bigger players. We are a country with a negative external trade balance, indebted and dependent on external financial inflows. We are under pressure by international financial institutions to keep the fiscal deficit within three per cent of the GDP. A mindless government that is nakedly pro-corporate is feeling impelled to resort to desperate measures to loot the people in innovative ways and overfeed the parasitic interests. This is certainly a continuation of the colonial policy of draining surplus out of the country by various forms of financial skulduggery and other such crimes.

The entire population from very young children to very senior citizens have been dragged or been compelled to drag themselves to enrolment centres for fear of not being able to access benefits such as noon meals at government schools or pensions. In the case of very young children, how many times in their lives will they have to undergo this exercise to update biometric and personal data? People have changing lives. How is it possible to continuously update the government on these various changes, and why should it be necessary? Already, by and large, people face a lot of harassment on a daily basis for meeting their most basic needs such as water. Demonetisation and Aadhaar only added to their daily woes. Perhaps the government thinks that dissipating people's energies through such unproductive hassles will hinder them in asserting their human rights!

It is a well established fact that such biometric identification simply does not work for many. The All India Kisan Sabha, which also filed a petition on this issue in the Supreme Court, states that finger print identification for manual workers and farmers (and domestic workers) with their soiled, work worn and washed out finger prints is impossible and is working as an exclusionary mechanism from the PDS system, MNREGA work and payments, fertiliser subsidies, crop insurance and other farm sector schemes. The aged too have to worry on this count. It has been pointed out that working in the sun affects iris recognition, faces change over time. An iris scan cannot be done on those with malnourishment related cataract, glaucoma, corneal blindness or scars (caused by infections or injuries to the eyes). False fingerprints can be created using latex and adhesives; coloured contact lenses can blur and obscure iris patterns. Accurate matching by iris and fingerprint scanners may not always happen and errors in recording data and mismatches are always possible. The Biometrics Standards Committee of the UIDAI had admitted the unresolved problem of fingerprint quality in India and the government has acknowledged that biometric authentication rates are low, which hardly makes this into an efficient and reliable identification system for disbursing benefits.

Others who find great difficulty in getting themselves included in the Aadhaar database are the destitutes and homeless, leprosy patients, sufferers of other illnesses and diseases, and nomads. Maybe, as hinted in the Act, DNA samples will soon be taken to overcome all these difficulties, which will also aid the global Human Genome Project, which has faced criticism worldwide. The DNA scripts of diverse human populations can be used by profit-oriented corporations in medicine, and by governments for eugenics and social control. Or in an increasingly digitalised economy the government may insist on inserting bio-chips (hi-tech computerised microchips) under the skin which can be scanned in lieu of a mandatory national identity card.

In the present economic conditions where jobs are not always available locally or are not sufficiently paying a good number of working people are migrants; some even without any permanent address. Then, many people who live in rented accommodation have to sometimes repeatedly shift accommodation even if within the same town. They all have to spend a lot of precious time unproductively to get together all the necessary documents of change of residence, mobile numbers etc. and queue up to get these details changed in their Aadhaar cards. Many migrant workers who have permanent addresses in other States had to take leave towards the end of 2017, forsaking wages, and spend money to go back home to try and get their now indispensable Aadhaar numbers. Their employers too suffered losses in this process as works came to a standstill for lack of labour in southern States like Kerala, which are heavily dependent on outside labour, particularly in construction and road building activity. But understanding or empathising with the ground realities of common people is not a cup of tea for narcissistic elected political representatives. Mass suffering is on their agenda as we are slowly to be prepared for "worse times" rather than "achhe din" (good times), such as a nuclear holocaust in the subcontinent.

Real time internet and mobile connectivity are unreliable in many rural areas, not least due to erratic electricity supply. On a countrywide scale the infrastructure is simply not in place for such an exercise. Telecommunications being an essential service should have been a state monopoly, but it is shared with various private players involving high level corruption. Telecom companies go bankrupt or merge with others. There is no proper prior information or reimbursement for those who had prepaid accounts. Different companies have different operating circles. SIM cards have often to be changed and this information has to be updated for the sarkar. We know that demonetisation and the GST regime too were callously introduced without any proper planning and forethought with vested interests in mind rather than the welfare and security of the people at large, who are being immeasurably harassed and have suffered even with lives lost.

The question of data security has also been raised. The CIDR has been shown to be vulnerable to identity theft. It can and has been hacked to acquire fingerprints and ID numbers from either the central database or databases of other organisations and used to carry out fraudulent transactions. Hackers can digitally replay fingerprints or even create physical fingerprints with the use of a 3D printer for authentication purposes and indulge in cyber crime fairly cheaply. Cyber attacks by hostile governments and individuals are possible. So are virus attacks, and then people have to wait till things are set right for transactions to take place. Those who guard the CIDR have access to it and have the potential to breach and misuse it. As of now there is no mechanism to reimburse losses incurred through identity theft. This Black Act has the strange provision (Section 47) that only UIDAI or any officer authorised by it, and not the victim of abuse, can file a complaint/lodge an FIR when the data of a resident of India is misused or abused. Once such given biometric data is stolen can it be replaced for the person to whom it belongs? There is certainly no logic in having one central means of identification as an Aadhaar number, which moreover can be suspended at will by the regime in power effectively causing instant civil death for the person concerned.

Currently the Aadhaar number is being asked for in many situations, which are not at all envisaged in the Act. Hospitals and nursing homes have asked for it, denying treatment if not immediately available, for critically ill persons; students have to give it for applying for admissions and sitting for exams; educational institutions are demanding it of their employees; defence and other establishments have begun using biometric devices for attendance and so on. This must be cheering news for the biometrics industry, for eg., for those manufacturing Fingerprint Slap Devices and Mobile-Eyes Iris Cameras like the US-based company L-1 Identity Solutions, now acquired by the French Safran Group, and their importers. But it is also indicative of an economy and polity which is getting ever more distant from catering to people's basic needs, whether economic or cultural. In general, digital data is being used by business and political interests to manipulate consumer preferences and behaviour and exploit people.

The Aadhaar project as it is being carried out is an assault on human rights and signifies a new form of slavery. It is embedded in the current greatly centralised economy where the dignity, self-respect and self-reliance of people do not play a role and are not given any importance. National identity has been reduced to a cipher in control of the state. It is a mechanism to subdue and subjugate people to comply with the agenda of those who have usurped power. What a travesty of democracy! It is the state baring its fangs. Fascistic irrationalism is a globally spreading contagion.

The centralised data base of AADHAAR can also easily be used to implement 'ethnic cleansing' if the government in power so wishes. In the past voter lists and telephone directories have been used to target certain populations in the case of communal riots and pogroms in which ruling parties have been involved. We also have the historical case of the Nazis in Germany who used census technology to target the Jews in the holocaust. State terrorism is hardly the best way to tackle the problem of terrorism, which has its socio-economic roots in the present imperialist global order.

Identity, as is projected now, has to do with national identity which seems to be under threat. Aadhaar was first implemented in the tension ridden and volatile border regions and is now being extended to the entire country and its population. Identity, national identity, is intrinsically connected to the threats to integrity as being conceived and as a necessary antidote to these threats. Legalities are to be dispensed with if they become obstacles. That is precisely why the government is implementing the project despite legal uncertainties. The situation is such that judicial fatalism is becoming in-built. Whatever it is, this is clear bureaucratic straitjacketing to generate national identity, but on shaky ideological foundations that are basically exclusivist. At the same time, such enormous storage of data opens up great possibilities for manipulations, both economic and political, and therefore must be resisted.

Autumn Number 2018
Vol. 51, No.14 - 17, Oct 7 - Nov 3, 2018