India’s biometric ID program “Aadhaar” exposing people’s personal data to theft, misuse: NYT


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WASHINGTON: An Indian biometric identification program, initiated nearly a decade ago with an aim to provide 12-digit unique identification number is failing to achieve its desired objectives and is instead creating new problems, including exposing personal data of people to theft or predation by the private sector, a New York Times report said.

An op-ed titled “Why India’s Big Fix is a Big Flab” said that the program called “Aadhaar” has already raised grave concerns about the data security and privacy issues, which are currently not protected under Indian law.

Last year, the government admitted to have put millions of Aadhaar numbers carelessly displayed on more than 200 government websites, and there have been reports that people can have access to the details of Aadhaar numbers of other people by paying a small amount to officials.

The program was initiated with an aim to provide a unique 12-digit identification number to India’s 1.3 billion residents and is a voluntary biometric ID system. But since assuming power in 2014, the government of Prime Minister Narandera Modi has made it mandatory for accessing numerous public services, as well as some private transactions.

The program has been challenged in the Supreme Court for its constitutionality as petitioners have argued that this program would “reduce citizens to servitude”, as those who do not have this digital number are having severe problems.

While having that number alone done not guarantee access to welfare benefits, not having it could result in denying people from getting state assistance, the report said. Many states have made it mandatory for people to get the number to claim rice or wheat at subsidized prices under a rationing system.

Among the states which implement this program is ester Jharkhand where, according to the report, only about 7 percent of residents aged 6 to 23 get an adequate diet. Last September, an 11-year-old girl died because of hunger as, the report said, her family was deleted from beneficiary’s registry as it failed to link its ratio card to a Aadhaar number. A half-dozen other Indians are reported to have died because of similar reasons, the report said.

“These deaths are the starkest and most tragic example of the system’s shortcomings. But many, many thousands of Indians, perhaps even millions, are at risk — if not of dying, at least of losing access to food, pensions or other benefits they sorely need,” the article said about the system that was supposed to help people not put them in further miseries.

Also, the report said that there was no evidence that Aadhaar helped checked corruption. Quoting a 2017 survey, it said skimming levels, where officials manipulated figures for monetary benefits, were the same as in villages which did not have Aadhaar system.

Despite many problems and its apparent failure to check fraud and corruption in delivery of public services, especially welfare benefits and subsidized food for poor, the BJP government is pushing to expand the program, which it opposed while in opposition when it was introduced by the Congress government in 2009.

Going further, the government wants to make it mandatory for opening bank accounts and getting mobile numbers, and even some online companies ask for Aadhaar number even for small shopping such as buying books.

Some critics have warned that Aadhaar could turn into an instrument of mass surveillance.

“Aadhaar was supposed to showcase the government’s forward thinking about efficient administration; it has only exposed the state’s coerciveness,” the report said.

“It was supposed to ease the poor’s access to welfare; it has hurt the neediest. It was supposed to harness technology in the service of development; it has made people’s personal data vulnerable. One of the Indian government’s biggest banner projects has become a glaring example of all that can go wrong with policy making in this country,” the article said. —APP