Who knew a random tweet has the potential of sending an entire nation into a frenzy. Well, that’s exactly what happened on February 3, 2017 when a single tweet send out the nation with the second-largest population in a state of shock and panic at the same time. The tweet that showed random citizens being identified on a street via Aadhaar, India’s ubiquitous database that boosts of having the biometric information of more than a billion Indians was sent out by the Twitter handle @India_Stack.
Ever since being posted, the tweet managed to garner a lot of eyeballs, mostly angry emotions from the Indian netizens, which eventually forced the account to take down the tweet. Offering a clarification on the tweet, @India_Stack posted that the previously posted tweet contained an image of the Home page of the OnGrid website, a privately owned company that India Stack, the infrastructure built by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has brought on board to tap into the world’s largest biometrics system, conjuring images of Minority Report style surveillance. According to the clarification tweeted, the previous tweet was removed based on community feedback.
This particular incident has ignited a fierce debate among the Indian citizens about privacy and security of their data with the government.
Aadhaar was formulated way back in 2008 as an ambitious project with an aim of changing the prospects of Indians. The government was pushed to think about this project when it realised that a lot of people in India didn’t have a legit birth or school certificate, hence they had no way to prove their identity. The government also realised this was the reason for the famous “leakage” in the government subsidy fundings as before the funds could reach the right people, they were being siphoned off by middlemen who took the advantage of the situation.
Considered similar to US’s Social Security number, Aadhaar’s implications are however considered further reaching.
Initially, the government said that it will be primarily using this optional program for helping the poor in the country who are in dire need of services such as grocery and other household items at subsidized rates.
In 2016, exactly eight years since its inception, Aadhar, which stores identity information such as a photo, name, address, fingerprints and iris scans of its citizens and also assigns them with a unique 12-digit number, has gone on to become the world’s largest biometrics based identity system with over 1.11 billion people of the country’s roughly 1.3 billion citizens enrolled in the biometrics system. According to the Indian government, about 99 percent of the adult population in India have an Aadhaar card.
While on the paper, Aadhaar still remains an optional program, but its significance in the practical world is undeniable. According to the government, the project has already helped it save it as much as $5 billion so far.
While the government might have conceived Aadhaar with an intention of helping the Indian poor, but eight years later, the project is doing much more than that. The government’s UPI (Unified Payment Interface) project is making use of Aadhaar to help the country’s unbanked population to avail financial services for the first time.
One of the most recent applications of Aadhaar that country saw was BHIM, the unified app for UPI-based payments launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 30th last year. .
BHIM in the BHIM app stands for Bharat Interface for Money. The app, which topped the Google Play Store charts in India just a few days after its launch, has been named BHIM after Babasaheb Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar.
The app allows payments via the United Payments Interface (UPI), which makes sure that money is debited or credited directly to a user’s bank account. For those users who don’t have UPI on their bank accounts yet, BHIM also supports transfers via MMID and IFSC code. UPI payments is preferred as against any other method as it only requires a Virtual Payee Address and a user doesn’t have to remember and share his/her bank details, thus reducing the risks of any fraud or theft.
The BHIM app binds together with the user’s device and mobile number. The users are required to set up a pin to login into the BHIM app each time they want to use it. There’s another pin called the UPI Pin, which is required to carry out the transactions on the app.
It’s next phase is called Aadhaar Enabled Payments System that will be doing away with the need for smartphones. It will reportedly allow people to make payments by just swiping their fingers on special terminals equipped with fingerprint sensors rather than swiping their credit or debit cards.
The year 2016 also saw the government recommending people to download the DigiLocker app, which is a digital cloud service, that any citizen in India can avail using their Aadhaar information. People can use the app to store their driver license documents and be relieved from the burden of carrying the paper documents every time you step out of the house.
The government’s future plans for Aadhaar also includes handing out “health cards” to senior citizens of the country, which will be mapped to their Aadhaar number and store all their medical records, which the doctors can access from anywhere and everywhere.
According to Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s IT minister, “Aadhaar is an instrument for good governance. Aadhaar is the mode to reach the poor without the middlemen.”
While the IT minister might consider it as an instrument of good governance, there have been multiple reports since the program’s inception which have suggested fake and bogus entries in the world’s largest biometrics based identity system.
According to experts, the fake entries are testimonial of the fact that the Aadhaar database has never been verified or audited.
According to a statement given by Rajeev Chandrasekhar, MP and privacy advocate, to Mashable India, “There are two fundamental flaws in Aadhaar: it is poorly designed, and it being poorly verified.” He further added, “Aadhaar isn’t foolproof, and this has resulted in fake data get into the system. This in turn opens new gateways for money launderers.”
Chandrasekhar also believes that the absence of a firm legislation to safeguard the privacy and rights of all the billion people who have willingly enrolled into the biometric system is another major concern associated with the program.
Many security experts agree with Chandrasekhar and add that Aadhaar doesn’t make use of basic principles of cryptography, and much of its security is not known.
While we’re still battling and debating with the privacy and security concerns associated with Aadhaar, the Indian government is pushing to make it more useful in the lives of the general public. The UIDAI had recently created what it is calling India Stack, an infrastructure through which government bodies as well as private entities could make use of Aadhaar’s database of individual identities. This was the initial root of the whole privacy debate, followed by the tweet by India Stack which escalated the matter to a whole new level.
While OnGrid has clarified that the picture tweeted by India Stack was for representation purposes only, but the lack of information from the UIDAI and India Stack is only adding to the problems of the citizens. There have also been intense debates regarding the conflict of interest between the privately held companies and the ones who helped design the framework of Aadhaar.