https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/07/technology/india-id-aadhaar.html

‘Big Brother’ in India Requires Fingerprint Scans for Food, Phones and Finances

By VINDU GOELAPRIL 7, 2018

Photo
India has collected biometric data on most of its 1.3 billion
residents, to be used in a nationwide identity system called Aadhaar,
meaning “foundation.” Credit The New York Times

NEW DELHI — Seeking to build an identification system of unprecedented
scope, India is scanning the fingerprints, eyes and faces of its 1.3
billion residents and connecting the data to everything from welfare
benefits to mobile phones.

Civil libertarians are horrified, viewing the program, called Aadhaar,
as Orwell’s Big Brother brought to life. To the government, it’s more
like “big brother,” a term of endearment used by many Indians to
address a stranger when asking for help.

For other countries, the technology could provide a model for how to
track their residents. And for India’s top court, the ID system
presents unique legal issues that will define what the constitutional
right to privacy means in the digital age.

To Adita Jha, Aadhaar was simply a hassle. The 30-year-old
environmental consultant in Delhi waited in line three times to sit in
front of a computer that photographed her face, captured her
fingerprints and snapped images of her irises. Three times, the data
failed to upload. The fourth attempt finally worked, and she has now
been added to the 1.1 billion Indians already included in the program.

Photo
A woman has her retinas scanned, one of several identifying
characteristics the system uses to track people. Credit The New York
Times

Ms. Jha had little choice but to keep at it. The government has made
registration mandatory for hundreds of public services and many
private ones, from taking school exams to opening bank accounts.

“You almost feel like life is going to stop without an Aadhaar,” Ms. Jha said.

Technology has given governments around the world new tools to monitor
their citizens. In China, the government is rolling out ways to use
facial recognition and big data to track people, aiming to inject
itself further into everyday life. Many countries, including Britain,
deploy closed-circuit cameras to monitor their populations.

But India’s program is in a league of its own, both in the mass
collection of biometric data and in the attempt to link it to
everything — traffic tickets, bank accounts, pensions, even meals for
undernourished schoolchildren.

“No one has approached that scale and that ambition,” said Jacqueline
Bhabha, a professor and research director of Harvard’s FXB Center for
Health and Human Rights, who has studied biometric ID systems around
the world. “It has been hailed, and justifiably so, as an
extraordinary triumph to get everyone registered.”

Photo
Fingerprints are another. Credit The New York Times

Critics fear that the government will gain unprecedented insight into
the lives of all Indians.

In response, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other champions of the
program say that Aadhaar is India’s ticket to the future, a universal,
easy-to-use ID that will reduce this country’s endemic corruption and
help bring even the most illiterate into the digital age.

“It’s the equivalent of building interstate highways,” said Nandan
Nilekani, the technology billionaire who was tapped by the government
in 2009 to build the Aadhaar system. “If the government invested in
building a digital public utility and that is made available as a
platform, then you actually can create major innovations around that.”

The potential uses — from surveillance to managing government benefit
programs — have drawn interest elsewhere. Sri Lanka is planning a
similar system, and Britain, Russia and the Philippines are studying
it, according to the Indian government.

Aadhaar, which means “foundation” in English, was initially intended
as a difficult-to-forge ID to reduce fraud and improve the delivery of
government welfare programs.

But Mr. Modi, who has promoted a “digital India” vision since his
party took power in 2014, has vastly expanded its ambitions.

The poor must scan their fingerprints at the ration shop to get their
government allocations of rice. Retirees must do the same to get their
pensions. Middle-school students cannot enter the water department’s
annual painting contest until they submit their identification.

In some cities, newborns cannot leave the hospital until their parents
sign them up. Even leprosy patients, whose illness damages their
fingers and eyes, have been told they must pass fingerprint or iris
scans to get their benefits.

The Modi government has also ordered Indians to link their IDs to
their cellphone and bank accounts. States have added their own twists,
like using the data to map where people live. Some employers use the
ID for background checks on job applicants.

Photo
Ajay B. Pandey, center, runs the Unique Identification Authority of
India, the government agency that oversees Aadhaar. Credit The New
York Times

“Aadhaar has added great strength to India’s development,” Mr. Modi
said in a January speech to military cadets. Officials estimate that
taxpayers have saved at least $9.4 billion from Aadhaar by weeding out
“ghosts” and other improper beneficiaries of government services.

Opponents have filed at least 30 cases against the program in India’s
Supreme Court. They argue that Aadhaar violates India’s Constitution —
and, in particular, a unanimous court decision last year that declared
for the first time that Indians had a fundamental right to privacy.

Rahul Narayan, one of the lawyers challenging the system, said the
government was essentially building one giant database on its
citizens. “There has been a sort of mission creep to it all along,” he
said.

The court has been holding extensive hearings and is expected to make
a ruling in the spring.

The government argues that the universal ID is vital in a country
where hundreds of millions of people do not have widely accepted
identification documents.

Photo
People filling out forms to register for the Aadhaar system in New
Delhi. One advantage cited for using biometric data is that it can
identify people who are illiterate or have no proper identification.
Credit The New York Times

“The people themselves are the biggest beneficiaries,” said Ajay B.
Pandey, the Minnesota-trained engineer who leads the Unique
Identification Authority of India, the government agency that oversees
the system. “This identity cannot be refused.”

Businesses are also using the technology to streamline transactions.

Banks once sent employees to the homes of account applicants to verify
their addresses. Now, accounts can be opened online and finished with
a fingerprint scan at a branch or other authorized outlet. Reliance
Jio, a telecom provider, relies on an Aadhaar fingerprint scan to
conduct the government-mandated ID check for purchases of cellphone
SIM cards. That allows clerks to activate service immediately instead
of forcing buyers to wait a day or two.

But the Aadhar system has also raised practical and legal issues.

Although the system’s core fingerprint, iris and face database appears
to have remained secure, at least 210 government websites have leaked
other personal data — such as name, birth date, address, parents’
names, bank account number and Aadhaar number — for millions of
Indians. Some of that data is still available with a simple Google
search.

As Aadhaar has become mandatory for government benefits, parts of
rural India have struggled with the internet connections necessary to
make Aadhaar work. After a lifetime of manual labor, many Indians also
have no readable prints, making authentication difficult. One recent
study found that 20 percent of the households in Jharkand state had
failed to get their food rations under Aadhaar-based verification —
five times the failure rate of ration cards.

Photo
Waiting to register for the system in New Delhi. Aadhaar was initially
intended to reduce fraud and improve the delivery of welfare benefits.
Officials have since broadly expanded its range. Credit The New York
Times

“This is the population that is being passed off as ghosts and bogus
by the government,” said Reetika Khera, an associate professor of
economics at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, who co-wrote
the study.

Seeing these problems, some local governments have scaled back the use
of Aadhaar for public benefits. In February, the government for the
Delhi region announced that it would stop using Aadhaar to deliver
food benefits.

Dr. Pandey said that some problems were inevitable but that his agency
was trying to fix them. The government is patching security holes and
recently added face recognition as an alternative to fingerprint or
iris scans to make it easier to verify identities.

Fears that the Indian government could use Aadhaar to turn the country
into a surveillance state, he said, are overblown. “There is no
central authority that has all the information,” he said.

Before Aadhaar, he said, hundreds of millions of Indians could not
easily prove who they were.

“If you are not able to prove your identity, you are disenfranchised,”
he said. “You have no existence.”

Suhasini Raj contributed reporting.

Follow Vindu Goel on Twitter: @vindugoel.

A version of this article appears in print on April 8, 2018, on Page
BU1 of the New York edition with the headline: India’s ‘Big Brother’
Program.

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