While the UIDAI can try to address the issues surrounding privacy concerning the storage and access of data by resorting to latest technologies, none of these that are currently available are foolproof. This is the second and concluding part of a two-part series
Most of the privacy debates around Aadhaar revolve around collection, storage and management of such vast amounts of private data concerning the citizens at one or more places and its usage. Never in the history of our country (probably for that matter in any country) has there been a situation wherein the entire private data of its citizens is stored and located at one place (Central ID Data Repository). While the UIDAI can try to address the issues surrounding privacy concerning the storage and access of data by resorting to latest technologies, none of these that are currently available are foolproof. There are sufficient incidents of hackers having broken into both public and private networks and sites. Given the vulnerability of such data to attacks, what is to done if an individual's biometric data is stolen? While data like the address or phone number can be easily be changed after being stolen, the biometric details of an individual can never be changed. Your fingerprint remains your fingerprint! The only option is to completely rebuild an alternative identity for the person whose data has been stolen, which would be practically impossible. On similar lines, doubts have been expressed about the robustness of the methods available for matching biometric information for identification which can result in false positives/negatives.
Aside from the direct issues related to technology is the issue of how the data is going to be used. While the private biometric data which is part of Aadhaar can be made secure to the extent technologically feasible, the same cannot be said about the derived uses of Aadhaar, by both private and public agencies. Though the enrollment to Aadhaar is currently optional, over time there would be an indirect compulsion to have one, as more and more services get tied into it. Casual use of Aadhaar for most of the transactions like bank, insurance etc., would indirectly facilitate linking of an individual's information, thus making profiling easy. Viewed in this context, the interest shown by some private agencies in using Aadhaar and its infrastructure as part of their process only confirms the suspicion of the critics. To propose a revenue model based on the usage of Aadhaar, as is being currently contemplated, would only broaden its usage, thus facilitating misuse.
Coming to the biometric data itself, some questions are being asked about the extent of the data collected and its possible misuse. Is it necessary to collect so much biometric data for identification purposes? Is it possible that such private data can be misused, given the fact that it is centralised? Consider a scenario in which a fingerprint is left behind by an individual at a location, which is fairly common, this could suddenly link him to an event he is not at all concerned with.
Unfortunately, a fingerprint does not have time signature to indicate when the impression was made! Given the scope for such misinterpretations, how appropriate is it to use fingerprints in biometric data? If identity is the sole issue, is it better to stick to some non-traceable markers like iris scan etc., which are less likely to be misused?
The last issue is concerned with the Aadhaar enrollment process itself. While enrolling people for Aadhaar, in addition to informing them about the benefits, are they being informed about the possible risks related to privacy and the need to be cautious in its use? A recent article in a leading national magazine has pointed out some grave misconceptions in people who have enrolled for the scheme in a village in Karnataka. Given such a possibility, one pertinent question that is being asked by activists is instead of putting poor/ignorant people through the process first, why not start with the rich and the urban population which can understand the issues better? Possibly one could start with an IT company itself! Enrolling people without adequately educating them about both the benefits and risks is akin to conducting clinical trials on patients with the promise of a possible cure without informing them about inherent risks.
In conclusion, given the diverse opinions on this issue, is there a middle ground possible, considering the fact there might a need for proper identity under some circumstances? Perhaps yes, if we can look at some via media alternatives. One way is to restrict the amount of biometric data collected and instead focus on the improvements in the process adopted for collection and verification of traditional data (as is done currently for many IDs). Another aspect is to find alternatives to centralised storage of the biometric data. One possible solution is to keep biometric data private on a card (along the lines being suggested in the US). The system would then authenticate only the genuineness of the card by connecting to a central server, whereas the biometric information is authenticated by reading from the card locally. This, though inconvenient when a card is lost, would significantly address some privacy concerns. These technological solutions should be followed by legislation restricting the use of Aadhaar for the barest minimum purposes in addition to prohibiting any illegitimate collection, storage and use. All this would require the openness of UIDAI to acknowledge and engage with various groups to try to find a common meeting ground, instead of being fixed on the approaches.
(The author is a Bengaluru-based technology consultant)