Will unique identity scheme take away privacy of citizens?

The Central government has come up with an Orwellian scheme for identifying and cataloguing citizens of the country. It is called the Universal or Unique Identity (UID) scheme. An authority called Unique Identity Authority of India (UIAI) has been set up. Some imagine that ‘digital identity biometric smart cards’ would be issued to all people. Some others imagine that cards would not be issued, but only numbers would be given to each citizen.

Hence, the scheme is sometimes referred to as, Unique Identity Number (UIN). The ‘Rams, Rahims and Richards’ of India would be reduced to mere numbers, if this grandiose scheme goes through, as we shall see in this story. Those who control the database of citizens’ particulars would have the whip, not just metaphorically, but also literally.

Not much is known about the purposes of the scheme. A high-profile corporate chieftain, Nandan Nilekani, has been appointed the project head, with Cabinet rank. News reports give different versions. They speak of imaginary benefits, depending on the predilections of the writers. Nilekani’s high-profile media image is perhaps, one reason for the hype, the news generated.

L K Advani, as home minister, had proposed a Multi-purpose National Identity Card (MNIC). In 2003, the NDA government amended the Citizenship Act, 1955, to facilitate the issue of MNIC. The Act provided for penalising citizens with fines up to Rs 1,000 for failing to register, the onus being that on the citizen. Is this feasible, considering our illiteracy and poverty? Nilekani, however, insists, the scheme the UPA government has in mind is voluntary.

As all types of data are expected to be incorporated in the ID card, who will guarantee the personal privacy of the citizens? As it is, there are no provisions in law for protection of personal privacy in India, which most developed countries have.

The scheme is being touted as one that would ensure that the government’s largesse in NREGA and other poverty programmes reach the intended beneficiaries. The IT industry is agog with the prospect of a windfall business opportunity. Microsoft has already come, offering their services.

The dangers, setting up such a database poses to the people of India, are ignored. The government has not spelt out what would be the content of each person’s data in the database, who would have access to it and for what purposes. A news report says, “Banks eye big role in UIN project.” Would KYC responsibility of banks be transferred to UID database?

The government has launched this ‘Tughlaqian’ scheme, without discussion in Parliament. Its dangers are well known. Civil liberties are at peril. Wrong persons gaining access to the database is a real threat. The scope for abuse is immense. The governments of the USA and UK have been forced to abandon similar schemes.

Technology is no answer

It is futile to hope that the scheme would ensure that poverty-alleviation-handouts reach the intended beneficiaries. Technology is incapable of surmounting the kind of corruption we have, or fix social maladies.

As for terrorism, neither does any terrorist need an ID card nor does the lack of one prevent him from carrying out his diabolic deed. Are there not traitors with army ID cards? Is there no better way to fight terrorism? Would not better intelligence, coordination between agencies, better training and equipment do the job?

Identity theft is a major problem even in advanced countries, such as, the USA. A London School of Economics (LSE) report says, “The card system might lead to greater identity fraud — The National Identity Register may pose a far larger risk to the security of UK citizens.”

The LSE estimates costs between £10.6 billion and £19.2 billion. One estimate puts the UID project cost at Rs 1.5 lakh crore. Has the government made a cost-benefit analysis of the expenditure? What are the system maintenance costs? Does it have legislative and budgetary sanction? Could this money be put to better uses?

The UIAI chairperson claimed that the project could be completed in 12 to 18 months. What could be the basis of such a claim? Probably the software could be written up in this time. What about the implementation — how long would this take?

Why has the NIC not been given this task? Why is the project not under the IT ministry? There are questions on the need for, and efficacy/viability of, the scheme. Is this a scheme for issue of an ID card or ID number? Is the card to be carried all the time? Who is to check this? What happens if a person is found to be not carrying the card or loses it? If, instead of a card, it is only an ID number scheme, is the citizen expected to remember the number? What happens if one forgets the number? What happens if the system malfunctions and reports a person, as a non-citizen? What happens if there is a data input error?

Considering all this, it is time to ask: Is our government reducing the Indian people to zeros or mere numbers, by embarking on this harebrained scheme, spending a huge amount of tax-payers’ money without the people’s mandate? 

(The writer is secretary, Citizens’ Action Forum)

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