Digital assets like Aadhaar have a lot of potential to benefit society at scale. Yet, many people in India are skeptical that the Aadhaar system can cause abuse of personal data and loss of privacy. Several applications have been filed in the Supreme Court countering the government’s push to make Aadhaar compulsory for access to social welfare schemes. The case in court deals with the question that the government is inhibiting people’s rights and liberties under the façade of empowerment.
The reality is that a variety of digital assets like smart phones and credit/ debit cards are being used in India. There are more than 600 million credit/debit card users and more than 300 million smart phone users in India. Obviously, a lot of user data is already out there with the firms that provide users with these services. However, no one questions the threat to privacy that is possible with this data. Prof Anindya Ghosh of New York University, an expert on mobile economy, says that consumers are increasingly willing to share their data to get access to a digital product or services without bothering about their privacy.
The question then is why people are worried about Aadhaar compromising their privacy when they are already using other services that can have the same deleterious effect on their privacy. What is pertinent here is right of choice in a democracy. A person can always choose not to have a smart phone or a debit/credit card if they are worried about their privacy. But, by making Aadhaar compulsory the government is taking away the right of choice from people.
This question of lack of choice, or restrictions in making choices, are becoming increasingly important not only in India, but also in other developed countries like USA and the European countries. One can argue that these restrictions are making democracy weaker. However, the flip side is that such restrictions allow for several benefits that empowers the underprivileged by improving their access to services (e.g. banks) and also creates bulwarks against corruption and black money. Therefore use of digital assets like Aadhaar strengthen the society and make it more equal and fair, thus strengthening democracy. Overall, we can conclude that while some facets of democracy may appear threatened, other facets are strengthened and we must evaluate the impact of Aadhaar like assets with this balance in mind. Hence, I am going to do this evaluation by analyzing a series of questions.
What are the benefits of Aadhaar?
With the introduction of Aadhaar more than 111 crore people in India have Aadhaar now covering around 99% of the adult population. Therefore, it is now possible for government to reliably identify each individual and target scheme benefits in a way that was never possible before. For example, more than 4.47 crore people have opened their bank account using Aadhaar. This has helped government transfer benefits directly (e.g. LPG subsidy, MGNREGA payments, scholarships and pensions etc.) into the account of the beneficiaries, thus eliminating diversion and leakage of funds.
Another benefit is a better monitoring of black money. Today, there are 25 crore PAN cards but there are only 4 crore tax payers. The reason for this discrepancy is that people use one PAN to file tax returns and other to buy jewelry. Clearly, duplication of PAN cards made government regulations to counter black money ineffective. However, such duplication is not possible because of biometric linking in Aadhaar. Therefore, once Aadhaar is quoted instead of PAN numbers, the issues of black money and tax evasion can be handled more effectively.
Another emergent benefit of Aadhaar is to reduce cash circulation by making cashless payments a reality in a majority of Indian society. Further, it is being used as an authentication device for taking out money from micro ATMs, and making payments to merchants.
Many consumer faced businesses have also become more efficient with Aadhaar. For example, Reliance Jio could enroll millions of customers with Aadhaar authentication within few minutes.
Can Aadhaar card, if lost or stolen, be used by others with malicious intent?
The biometric link in Aadhaar makes it is impossible to be used with malicious intent unlike credit /debit cards which need to be immediately blocked in such a situation.
Can individuals update their data to keep it current?
The Aadhaar card holder has the legal right to access and update his/her demographic information except for the core biometrics. This system ensures the continued accuracy of information in the central identities data repository.
Can the system be manipulated and misused by the system operators?
Impersonation, changing or attempting to change the demographic and biometric information of an Aadhaar number holder, pretending to be an agency authorized to collect Identity information of a resident, intentionally transmitting information collected during enrolment and authentication to an unauthorized person, hacking the central identities data repository and tampering it, providing biometrics that is not one’s own are all punishable offences under law. Clearly, the legal system has kept pace with the needs to make Aadhaar effective.
Recently public display of ace cricketer MS Dhoni’s data by the enrolling agency was treated as an offence, which got them blacklisted for 10 years. UIDAI has confirmed that Aadhaar biometric data has not been breached by way of identity theft or financial loss in the last five years and around 40 billion Aadhaar authenticated transactions have been done in this time frame. This shows the robustness of the Aadhaar system. Recently, a couple of attempts were made to infringe the integrity of the system by a single person giving double demographic identities and another attempt in which copies of biometric fingerprints were used to authenticate online payments. Both these attempts to compromise the integrity of the Aadhaar system were identified and a criminal case was filed against the culprits.
Can the system be misused by government for surveillance?
Surveillance is already done by cctv cameras, phone tapping, drones, social media posts and tweets by the governments all over the world. Most of us have one or more identity/address documents, such as a passport, ration card, PAN card, driving license, vehicle registration documents or a voter ID card. The government departments managing these already have our data. Therefore, government can do surveillance and profiling even without Aadhaar. Further, Aadhaar enrolment process does not capture sensitive details like community, caste, religion, class, ethnicity, income and health. It is indeed correct that government should not do profiling, but it does not appear that Aadhaar system allows the government to do profiling any more than already existing systems.
Overall, we see that the benefits of Aadhaar far outweigh any negative consequences. Therefore, Aadhaar can be looked at as a fledgling digital institution that is just taking root. We must understand that trust has always played a vital role in allowing the institutions in a democratic society to function. We choose our leaders, but then we give our trust to the elected leaders to run a country for several years. We also trust our judges to provide a fair system of justice, while they are mostly immune to removal. We all know that trust is sometimes violated by some individuals. But, the collective experience of society has been more positive than negative, which is what has made democracy sustain through these tumultuous times.
We should trust Aadhaar in the same way as we trust our age old democratic institutions and give it a chance.