Wednesday, March 16, 2016

My problems with Aadhaar bill

When Aadhaar was launched by the UPA government, it was meant to be a system that provides a mechanism to authenticate people so that targeted subsidies can be given. Since most subsidies were not reaching target population it sounded like a good idea. When the registration started, I also registered for it because the biggest proponent of Aadhaar, Nandan Nilkeni, always maintained that it was only meant as an authentication system for government subsidies.

Recently the parliament has passed the Aadhaar law. As I read it, following clauses stand out and make me wonder whether it is a right thing or not.

Cases when information may be revealed: In two cases, information may be revealed:
In the interest of national security, a Joint Secretary in the central government may issue a direction for revealing, (i) Aadhaar number, (ii) biometric information (iris scan, finger print and other biological attributes specified by regulations), (iii) demographic information, and (iv) photograph.  Such a decision will be reviewed by an Oversight Committee (comprising Cabinet Secretary, Secretaries of Legal Affairs and Electronics and Information Technology) and will be valid for six months.   
On the order of a court, (i) an individual’s Aadhaar number, (ii) photograph, and (iii) demographic information, may be revealed.
So a Joint Secretary in the government of India can issue a direction for revealing all the information in the interest of national security with no clear definition of what national security consists of. As we have seen, even few students shouting slogans (inappropriate ones) can become an issue of national security.

This is only half the problem as far as the aadhaar is concerned. Aadhaar depends on two sets of biometrics. Finger print and retina scan. I believe both of these mechanisms have an error rate of 1 in 10 million. These are great for finding criminals, but once you collect data for a country of the size of India, things become difficult.

Let's say, in the situation of a national interest, police picks up a fingerprint from a crime scene and run it against aadhaar database. Given the error rates of 1 in 10 million, there would be 100 people in the country whose fingerprints may match. The way our judicial system works, the onus of proving that you are innocent will fall on you. To me it is really scary thought. Aadhaar is good enough for disbursing subsidies, if somebody else claims my subsidy, I will be unhappy but if I am caught for a crime I did not have anything to do with, I think it is a problem of a very different scale.

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