An Aid to Surveillance


The air is thick with schemes that will enable the state, and its agencies, to identify every resident, and to track what they are doing. A Home Ministry project for creating a National Population Register which will be prepared along with the 2011 Census has been propelled through its pilot stage. Now, an ambitious programme has been launched to load all the residents of the country on to a data base, providing each of us with a unique identity number. What  distinguishes this exercise from any other undertaken so far?

First of all, the intention is provide a Unique Identity Number to the whole population, including the just born.  The state is to have data on each individual literally from birth to death; and beyond, for a person’s UID is not destroyed at death, merely dis-abled. The numbers are to be so generated that it will not have to be repeated for between a hundred and two hundred years.

The UIDAI, in its working paper, says that enrolment will not be mandatory, but acknowledges that in practice it is expected not to be voluntary. The `Registrars’, who will enrol people on to the data base, will be both private operators and government agencies, and they will be encouraged to insist that they will entertain only those who are willing to enrol. Over a short time, only those with UID numbers may find themselves able to access services. That is the effort.

The UID has nothing to do with citizenship. The information on the UID data base is expected to be basic, and to cover all residents: name, date of birth, place of birth, gender, the name and UID numbers of both parents, address, date of death and photograph and fingerprints. This is because the UID is only to identify the individual to the agency that is looking for authentication.

Just on its own, it could even seem benign.

There are two phenomena that take the innocence out of the exercise. The first is `convergence’. `Convergence’ is about combining information. There are presently various pieces of information available separately, and held in discrete `silos’. We give information to a range of agencies; as much as is necessary for them to do their job. The passport agencies do not need to know how many bank accounts you have, or whether you drive a car. The telephone company need not know how you have insured your house. The police do not need to know how often you travel, not unless you are a suspect anyway. It is this that makes some privacy possible in a world where there are so many reasons why, and locations where, we give information about ourselves. The ease with which technology has whittled down the notion of the private has to be contained, not expanded. The UID, in contrast, will act as a bridge between these silos of information, and it will take the control away from the individual about what information we want to share, and with whom.

This is poised to completely change norms of privacy, confidentiality and security of personal information. There are already indications about how convergence will work. Consider the reports that the Apollo Hospitals group has offered to manage health records through the UIDAI. It has already invested in a company called Health Highway that reportedly connects doctors, hospitals and pharmacies who would be able to communicate with each other and access health records. In August 2009, Business Standard reported that Apollo Hospitals had written to the UIDAI and to the Knowledge Commission to link the UID number with health profiles of those provided the ID number, and offered to manage the health records. The terms `security’ and `privacy’ seem to be under threat, where technological possibility is dislocating many traditional concerns.

The second phenomenon is `tracking’. Once the UID is in place, and convergence becomes commonplace, the movement of people, their monies, their activities can be brought together, especially since transactions from buying rice in a PDS shop to receiving wages to bank withdrawals to travel could begin to require the number. There is a difference between people tracking a state, and the state, and the `market’,  tracking people. The UID is clearly not what it is presented as being: it is not benign, nor a mere number which will give an identity to those who the state had missed so far.

Interestingly, the working paper of the UIDAI starts with a claim that the UID will bring down barriers that prevents the poor from accessing services and subsidies by providing an identity, but soon goes on to clarify that the “UID number will only guarantee identity, not rights, benefits or entitlements”. Given that it is the powerlessness of the poor, inefficiency, the perception of the poor as not deserving of support, sympathy or rights, and the status of illegality foisted on them that stops them from getting what is due to them, and given that corruption and leakages in the system mutate and persist, this quick stepping back is wise indeed.

In the excitement about technology being deployed to do something that has not been done anywhere in the world, the importance of privacy and protection from misuse of personal information is getting eclipsed.

It is significant that the UIDAI working paper makes no mention of national security concerns, and the surveillance, and profiling, possibilities it will create. Yet, the UID is not a project in isolation. The NATGRID, which the UID will facilitate, places the whole population under surveillance; and the Home Minister is talking about a DNA bank.

Fallibility, the difficulties inherent in reaching those in extreme poverty, the choiceless existence on a data base and the possibility of undesirable others getting hold of information only add to the scariness of the scenario that we seem to have accepted without discussion, challenge or debate. And, once accomplished, we would have reached a point of no return.

Usha Ramanathan is an independent law researcher

Published in the Indian Express, 6 January, 2010

3 thoughts on “An Aid to Surveillance”

  1. An aspect that you have not touched on, and one which I think deserves some mention is the cost of the scheme itself. If we look at the FM’s recent budget speech there is allocation of 1900 crores (!) for this scheme. Based on the math that I learnt in school, … we have a population of 110 crores this works out to about 17.25 per card.
    The documents available on the UID site use more cautionary phrases such as “cost of enrolment” and put this in the range of Rs 25 per “enrolment”. Not too sure what they mean by enrolment. Do they mean the cost of getting the ID to the end user or do they mean the cost of capturing data for each user? Either way…at near 20Rs a person – it sounds like they the authors of this project have not been able to leverage on economies of scale.

    The biggest beneficiaries of such a project, no doubt, will be product vendors such as Oracle and IT services vendors.

    To put it simply, the entire scheme reminds one of M$. In a small office, I would need to hire an IT guy, buy lots of licenses for an operating system and MSOffice so that a handful of people can use a spread-sheet software. There is some similarity to this model and what UID is getting us into.

    We are headed towards a massive vendor “lock-in” with large vendors and taxpayers will be subsidising annual support contracts. In a country where 400 million people live in poverty, I am not convinced that this the best utilization of tax payer resources.

    It would be interesting to note that post 9/11 Oracle’s flamboyant CEO recommended a similar ID scheme in US (built on Oracle technology of course). The idea did not find too many takers.

    The second more worrying aspect is the in-roads that business interests are making into government policy formulation. Why should an industry-insider help define and shape policy when we have institutions such as CDAC already in place. What’s next….Indra Nooyi becoming an advisor on health?

    I am no Rocket Scientist or IT specialist. However, when there are Silos of information already (largely) computerized in different government departments, would it not make sense if we got these Silo’s to talk to each other rather than build massive IT projects from the ground up? Such technology interventions, would also keep the information distributed and ownership of data with the most appropriate owners.

    The money that we are pouring into a system (that will become a legacy system very quickly), is better used in developing technology that will provide better access to information to poor.

  2. Usha, excellent summary of a terrible plan. The future may be upon us sooner than we imagined. This absurd scheme reminds me of so many science fiction movies, especially that scene from ‘minority report’ in which Tom Cruise, who’s desperately fleeing the police, is running through a subway station, and as he passes in front of electronic hoardings, the faces on them follow him with their eyes, then call out his name to say, “John so-and-so, given your profile, you may want to buy this car…or that cola.” All the poor man has to do is to look in the direction of the hoardings once, for them to scan his eyes and pull up data on him.

    Who is to control what use any information will be put to? Why do we keep harping on our precious liberty and democracy when we live in a time of historically unprecedented technologies of surveillance? Apparently the government wants to embed GPS chips in these cards, so a person’s movements can be tracked to the last inch…One can only hope this scheme is a spectacular failure, like all insane plans in history.

  3. Very well written. I hope india learns the idea of ‘privacy’ from the West. I hope people read the book ‘1984’ and watch movies like Minority report and Matrix.

    The future where the govt wants full control and open for abuse is quite near.

    Excellent summary. Very well written and articulate.

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