Are Indians being used as guinea pigs of biometric technology companies? -Part 14

Biometric profiling for electronic monitoring is used across the world as a punitive tool for criminals. The threat of exclusion in absence of biometric-based Aadhaar on decrees and sanctions is unconstitutional as it would snatch the right to life and livelihood of all Indians

For creating a biometric profile of Indians, the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2013 which was re-approved by the Union Cabinet on 8 October 2013 is listed for re-introduction in the Lok Sabha in the winter session for consideration and passing. Biometric profile is akin to a prisoner identification number although it is assigned by inheritance, not by the government.

On 19 November 2013, while inaugurating Bhartiya Mahila Bank meant for providing financial services to women in general and women self-help groups in particular in Mumbai, Sonia Gandhi, president of Indian National Congress said, “I believe that the use of Aadhaar has the potential to revolutionise the relationship of the vast majority of our people with our financial systems through the delivery of subsidy, welfare and cash payments. Through direct benefits transfer (DBT), Aadhaar will eliminate middlemen and reduce corruption on a large scale. But for this to happen banks have to come on board quickly.” This statement appears to be in contempt towards Supreme Court’s order of September 2013 because linking of direct benefits transfer with Aadhaar makes the latter mandatory which has been prohibited by the court.

Sonia Gandhi’s endorsement of biometric technology based Aadhaar for delivery of subsidy, welfare and cash payments through DBT has been rejected by the Supreme Court by its order of 23 September 2013 which was reiterated on 26 November 2013. Andhra Pradesh High Court and Punjab & Haryana High Court have also questioned its legality. In a significant development West Bengal State Assembly passed a resolution rejecting linking of biometric Aadhaar with DBT on 2 December 2013.

In a communication to this author, Prof Tarun Kanti Naskar, member of legislative assembly (MLA) from Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) party in West Bengal informed, “the government moved a resolution on Aadhaar opposing only on technical issues like getting the card by 15% of state population thereby a problem of availing the subsidy of LPG. I on behalf of the party supported the resolution saying Aadhaar should be opposed on principled points of views like: violation of Parliament's prerogatives, chance of abuse of power, no statutory sanction, chance of using the personal data for surveillance purposes, outsourcing the data to private organisations and even to abroad etc. The resolution was passed unopposed. Congress was not in the House.”

It is evident that from this resolution that all the parties other than Indian National Congress are opposed to the implementation of Aadhaar based programs. Sonia Gandhi’s proposition has been challenged through Writ Petition (Civil) 833 of 2013 in the Supreme Court by Aruna Roy, her ex-colleague in the National Advisory Council (NAC) because biometric Aadhaar violates the fundamental rights enshrined under Part III of the Constitution of India.  

Unmindful of the fact that people’s right to energy and to cooking fuel funded by government is being snatched away by linking it with Aadhaar. The right to life and livelihood is under tremendous threat because significantly large number of Indians has been moved away from fire wood and coal based cooking. Delhi, for instance claims to be a 100 % LPG state. That means right to life and livelihood can be snatched away with its link with Aadhaar. Thus, the threat of exclusion in absence of Aadhaar based on decrees and sanctions unleashes violence on the people.  This is unconstitutional. 

The resolution of West Bengal State Assembly against Aadhaar paves way for other State legislatures to rigorously examine the ramifications of biometric information based identification of residents of India in the light of global experiences.  

A release of Press Information Bureau (PIB) dated 7 November 2013 issued by Planning Commission states “all necessary steps have been taken for introduction of the National Identification Authority of India (NIDAI) Bill, 2013 in the winter session of Parliament likely to commence from the 1st week of the next month. The Union Cabinet has already approved the proposal submitted by the Ministry of Planning for moving official amendments to the Bill last month.”

It may be recalled that The National Identification Authority of India (NIDAI) Bill, 2010 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on 3 December 2010 after the launch of 12 digit biometric unique identification (UID)/Aadhhar number by Dr Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi on 29 September 2010. This Bill of 2010 was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on Finance. The PSC presented its Report on NIDAI Bill to the Lok Sabha and laid it in Rajya Sabha on 13 December 2011 wherein it questioned the legality, constitutionality and necessity of the UID/Aadhaar number.

The NIDAI Bill proposes to constitute a statutory authority to be called the NIDAI and lay down the powers and functions of the Authority, the framework for issuing biometric Aadhaar numbers, define offences and penalties and matters incidental thereto through an Act of Parliament. It is not clear from this as to what is the current framework for “offences and penalties” and liability and accountability of officials of UIDAI who are “functioning under the executive authorisation” based on the opinion of the Ministry of Law and Justice and the opinion of the Attorney General of India.

Responding to PSC’s report, Planning Commission records that “Among the procedural issues raised by the Committee are untested and unreliable technology, global experience of identity projects, high cost, absence of study on financial implication, duplication of effort with National Population Register exercise and inability to in covering full or near full the marginalised sections.”

After that the Commission unsuccessfully responds stating, “UIDAI, in terms of technology has already generated more than 44 crore Aadhaar and is currently processing over 1 million Aadhaar per day with a capacity to undertake 180 trillion biometric matches per day. This makes it the largest database of its kind in the world. Aadhaar is aimed at building a basic Identity and verification infrastructure for welfare and inclusive growth. It is important to note that the cost projections for the UIDAI project has also been earlier approved by the Government of India for total amount of Rs12,398.22 crore as compared to Rs1.50 lakh crore as reported in some media some time back. The total cumulative expenditure incurred by UIDAI, since inception of the Project, is Rs3,490 crore as on 30 September 2013. A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Aadhaar Project conducted by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) shows that the Internal Rate of Return (IRR), in real terms, generated by Aadhaar would be 52.85%. In January 2012, it was decided with the approval of the Cabinet Committee on UIDAI, that NPR and UIDAI enrolments should proceed simultaneously.”

Clearly, the Commission has failed to inform citizens and the legislatures about the “global experience of identity projects” and to respond to the PSC’s charge that “untested and unreliable technology”, large number of enrollment using this technology is hardly an answer. With regard to “absence of study on financial implication” as noted by PSC, even the NIPFP study provides no data on the extent of the leakage, which is sought to be plugged using Aadhaar. The study itself reveals that there is absence of data in this regard. Outdated data can hardly be deemed sufficient. Besides this was not even an ‘independent study’ because researchers did not disclose their conflict of interest emerging from group's research affiliations with the UIDAI.

In its report, PSC has taken the government to task for “duplication of effort with National Population Register exercise”. In a meek response, Planning Commission simply states that it was decided by the “Cabinet Committee on UIDAI (CCUIDAI), that NPR and UIDAI enrolments should proceed simultaneously.” Does reference to the decision of CCUIDAI provide satisfactory answer to the charge of “duplication of effort” made by PSC?  

The UIDAI was set up as an attached office of the Planning Commission as per a notification dated 28 January 2009. It is now proposed to be set up as a statutory authority by the name of NIDAI upon passage of the NIDAI Bill, 2013 after NIDAI Bill, 2010 was rejected by the PSC.

The PIB release notes that PSC had observed that the pending the passage of the Bill issuance of Aadhaar numbers was "unethical" and "violative" of Parliament prerogatives. Responding to PSC’s observation, Planning Commission states, “The issuance of Aadhaar was based on the opinion of the Ministry of Law and Justice and the opinion of the Attorney General of India which had clearly stated that the UIDAI can continue to function under the executive order issued by the Government and there is nothing in the law, or otherwise, which prevents the Authority from functioning under the executive authorisation.”

This claims faces legal challenge in the Supreme Court. If NIDAI Bill, 2013 is sent again to PSC, it too is likely to contest the claim that a Notification of Planning Commission is superior to the Ordinance issued under Article 123 in the Constitution of India that empowers the President to promulgate Ordinance during recess of Parliament. In the case of ordinance, it requires to be passed as an Act by the Parliament within six months of its promulgation to be deemed legal but it is clear from what the government claims that the notification does not mandatorily need Parliament’s consent even after almost five years. Assuming that notification is an act of subordinate legislation, the question is under which parent Act was it issued. It is a fit case for examination by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on subordinate legislation.       

The NIDAI Bill seeks to give statutory status for the Unique Identification Authority of India which wants to database all Indians by claiming to provide them with a biometric data based Aadhaar identity as if Indians do not have an identity. The revised text of the Bill is not in public domain. After the introduction of the Bill it is likely to be sent to PSC on Finance.

The NIDAI Bill seeks to provide “for authentication of the Aadhaar number of an Aadhaar number holder in relation to his biometric information and demographic information subject to such conditions and on payment of such fees as may be specified by regulations” and for “Specifying the demographic information and biometric information for enrolment for an Aadhaar number and the processes for collection and verification thereof; 1 service delivery organisations/Ministries.”

According to US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), “Biometrics are the measurable biological (anatomical and physiological) or behavioural characteristics used for identification of an individual. Fingerprints are a common biometric modality, but others include things like DNA, irises, voice patterns, palm prints, and facial patterns.”

It may be recalled that National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had issued suo motto notice on 7 February 2011 to the Union Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), when Indian students were made to wear radio collars in Try Valley University in California, US.

In response, a communication from the then Union Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao reads: “We have also strongly protested the radio collars as unacceptable, which should be removed immediately. We have also conveyed that we expect the US Government to take steps to prevent such universities from exploiting foreign students."

A collar fitted with a small radio transmitter that when attached to human beings or wild animals can be used in tracking their animal's movements by radio telemetry. Radio telemetry is the use of radio for the transmission of voice information from a transmitter on a free-ranging living entity to a receiver. If biometric profiling is so innocent why NHRC issued notice to MEA and why MEA registered its strong protest against it?   

The case of a leading candidate for the 2012 French Presidency, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of International Monetary Fund (IMF) who faced allegations of sexual assault on 32-year old hotel maid also merits attention. He was made to wear electronic monitoring ankle bracelet by New York Supreme Court. If biometric profiling for electronic monitoring is good, why was it used as a punitive tool?

UIDAI had constituted a committee to review the state of biometrics to "serve the specific requirements of UIDAI relating to de-duplication and authentication” and to “obtain consensus (for) widespread propagation of biometrics in governmental and private sectors.” It was set up on 29 September 2009. Notably, Nandan Nilekani was appointed as the Chairperson of UIDAI on 2 July 2009 and he assumed charge on 23 July 2009. The committee on biometrics submitted its report in December 2009.

The UIDAI issued a “notice inviting applications for hiring of biometrics consultant” for “proof of concept of biometric solutions for UIDAI project” in February 2010 ahead of the launch of the biometric data based UID /Aadhaar. But the `UID enrolment proof-of-concept (PoC) report' emerged on the UIDAI’s website in February 2011. It may be noted that it came to light after UID/Aadhaar was already launched in September 2010 by Sonia Gandhi.

The PoC report reads: “The goal of the PoC was to collect data representative of India and not necessarily to find difficult-to-use biometrics. Therefore, extremely remote rural areas, often with populations specialising in certain types of work (tea plantation workers, areca nut growers, etc.) were not chosen. This ensured that degradation of biometrics characteristic of such narrow groups was not over-represented in the sample data collected.

The report did not disclose how will those Indian residents be included whose fingerprints and iris scan cannot be captured. Even Nilekani conceded in his talk in Washington at World Bank office in April 2013, that “nobody has done this before, so we are going to find out soon whether it will work or not”.

Now it is for the Parliament, State legislatures, Supreme Court and High Courts besides citizens to ponder over whether or not they are willing to allow themselves and their coming generations to be treated like guinea pigs for biometric technology companies  to experiment and find out whether it works or not. 

You may also want to read…


Why biometric identification of citizens must be resisted? Part I

Biometric identification is modern day enslavement -Part II

Biometric profiling, including DNA, is dehumanising -Part III

Marketing and advertising blitzkrieg of biometric techies and supporters -Part IV

History of technologies reveals it is their owners who are true beneficiaries -Part V

UID's promise of service delivery to poor hides IT, biometrics industry profits –Part VI

Technologies and technology companies are beyond regulation? -Part VII

Surveillance through biometrics-based Aadhaar –Part VIII

Narendra Modi biometrically profiled. What about Congress leaders?-Part IX

Aadhaar: Why opposition ruled states are playing partner for biometric UID? -Part X


Is Nandan Nilekani acting as an agent of non-state actors? –Part XI


(Gopal Krishna is member of Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties (CFCL), which is campaigning against surveillance technologies since 2010)

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    Aadhaar and transparency are two distinct things. Right Mr Nilekani?

    Nandan Nilekani-led UIDAI has always ducked questions asked through RTI Act citing non-disclosure agreements. The recent information about missing papers of contract value for a French company, however raises serious questions on Aadhaar scheme

    Aadhaar or the unique identification (UID) number scheme if often touted as something that will bring transparency in the lives of crores of Indians and reduce corruption. However, when it comes to the same transparency at Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the de-facto tagging institution, even applications filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act receive opaque answers. The latest answer from UIDAI about 'missing papers of contract value for Sagem Morpho Security Pvt Ltd (a French company)', however raises serious questions upon the intentions of the authority.


    An RTI application filed by Qaneez-e-Fatemah Sukhrani, an urban affairs researcher, sought a copy of memorandum of understanding (MoU)/ contract executed between UIDAI and/or Planning Commission with L1 Identity Solutions Operating Co, currently a subsidiary of French conglomerate Safran Group, Sagem Morpho Security Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of Safran Group, Ernst & Young, a US company, Accenture Services Pvt Ltd, a US company and ID Solutions company and the tender cost.  At the time of award of contract to L1 Identity Solutions Operating Co was a US company.


    A reply dated 25 October 2013 from Shirish Kumar, assistant director general and chief public information officer (CPIO) of UIDAI reveals that the value of contract for L1 was Rs33.87 crore and for Ernst & Young it was Rs7.05 crore. With regard to Sagem Morpho Security Pvt Ltd, it states that the “effort is on find the data” about the value of contract awarded. This reply in the matter of Sagem Morpho Security Pvt Ltd is quite intriguing. Notably, L1 has undergone metamorphosis and become part of Safran Group along with Morpho Security Pvt Ltd.


    According to a report from Economic Times, the UIDAI is partnering with MongoDB, (formerly called 10gen), a technology company from US which is co-funded by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This contract has not been disclosed so far. MongoDB will take data from UIDAI to undertake its analysis. UIDAI is tight-lipped about CIA's role in it. This company's database software is already being used to verify the speed of registration. It is yet to become clear whether this company will be in a vendor relationship directly, or it will operate through some pre-existing entity which is already working with UIDAI as system integrator, said Gopal Krishna, a member of Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties (CFCL), which is campaigning against surveillance technologies since 2010.  


    In the past, the Nandan Nilekani-led UIDAI had used excuse like, ‘non-disclosure agreements' for denying information in a number of RTI applications. However, no data available for contract value is something that is really shocking.


    In response to a RTI query seeking copies of the UIDAI's contracts with four private companies—two foreign and two Indian—the authority claimed that these could not be furnished since they have signed non-disclosure agreements with them. The UIDAI is set up and functioning without the sanction of law. It enters into contracts with private companies, including foreign ones, pays them out of the exchequer and refuses to furnish copies of the contracts. Are not these contracts illegal? How could the UIDAI sign contracts on behalf of Planning Commission? Assuming, but not admitting that the UIDAI is empowered to enter into the contracts, are not the non-disclosure agreements illegal? How could any office of the government pay taxpayers’ money to private companies and not disclose the contracts (purpose for which the money is paid) to taxpayers?


    The UIDAI has been informed that one of the foreign companies has links with intelligence agencies from a foreign country. This information failed to obtain any reaction from the UIDAI. The response to an RTI application seeking information on foreign company contractors was even more inexplicable. The UIDAI stated that it did not know the country of origin of these contractors and is not concerned about such facts. It added that as long as the bidding contractors had an office in India or an Indian partner and had sent a RFP, the Authority would not bother with origins. That is saying a lot about the kind of due diligence UIDAI has done in choosing contractors for “India’s prestigious world’s largest database project” of the country’s biometric and demographic information.


    In answer to another RTI query to furnish copies of contracts pertaining to three empanelled Enrolling Agencies (EAs), the UIDAI did not furnish the copies of applications submitted by these companies and minutes of decision to empanel them. Instead, the UIDAI replied stating that the companies “were empanelled as EAs during the year 2010-11 on the basis of eligibility conditions provided in RFE-2010 and subject to satisfying other terms and conditions.”


    Such obfuscation is characteristic of the UIDAI’s ‘transparency’. One of the three companies is a tea estate company. How does a tea estate company satisfy ‘eligibility conditions’ for empanelment, as EA is mysterious, until one reads the RFE. The RFE states, “All organizations (single agency/consortium) interested in undertaking enrolment activities for the UIDAI project shall be empanelled under Level T1, provided they meet the general eligibility criteria”. It is a free for all; anyone and everyone can join the melee of the enrolment process to capture biometric and demographic data of the people of this country. 


    According to Mathew Thomas, a former defence services officer and missile scientist turned civic activist, press and media have reported several instances of fraud and crimes by EAs. "FIRs have been filed. Nothing is known about what happened to these cases. Police and media are equally silent on this, and strangely so. One would have thought that the stories on them would make juicy media stories. The UIDAI too, is not forthcoming on details of these cases. An RTI query elicited a vague response from the UIDAI, almost disowning responsibility for what the EAs do. The Authority claimed that this is the responsibility of registrars, "he said.   


    Several activists and prominent personalities had already cautioned that the Indian government is allegedly using Aadhaar and its issuer UIDAI to counter the RTI Act. Experts opine that an information revolution in the form of RTI now has a counter revolution in the avataar of UID. The attempt to use Aadhaar to provide government subsidies by a more transparent network is allegedly just a cover up.


    Nikhil Dey, leading RTI activist and founder member MKSS has stated in his article in the recently published book by YASHADA titled “Milestone 7: Journey of RTI Act” that, "There are new information laws in the making that give the state control over detailed information about every citizen. There are new draft privacy laws that claim to keep this information secure from the prying eyes of other citizens. There are secrecy clauses embedded into laws on data collection that once again seek to give the custodians of power exclusive control over information. And most threatening perhaps, are legal frameworks that legitimise the use of new technologies of information gathering to watch over every element of people’s lives under the guise of 'good' governance, ‘greater’ security, and ‘safer’ democracies!”


    Gopal Gandhi, former governor of West Bengal so incisively cautioned, “We must ensure that tools like the UID must help the citizens watch every move of government; not allow the government watch every move of the citizens.’ As they are today, the RTI and the UID stand on contrary sides of the information debate. If the RTI is a tool of the citizens to control the government and hold it accountable, the UID is a tool of the government to control the citizens.”


    Venkatesh Nayak, programme co-ordinator, CHRI, who is researching on this subject, has appealed citizens to invoke RTI to find out details of actions planned by state governments on the basis of the finance ministry’s advice to expand the Aadhaar network where pilots of the controversial UPA government’s subsidy schemes will be rolled out linking UID to social development programmes. “There simply is no information about these issues in the public domain—only the rush and urgency of implementing the pilots. All this is hugely problematic because the government is not doing its mandated duty of complete proactive disclosure of facts and figures relating to the implementation of the UID as is required under Section 4 (1) of the RTI Act,” he had said.


    Even before the privacy of a citizen has been properly secured, the central government has gone ahead, putting up personal details of citizens in the technology space where not only others but the government itself can access personal data and misuse or abuse it. So while RTI Act empowers a citizen; the UID’s Aadhaar number scheme empowers the government.

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    Ravi S

    6 years ago

    I recall BJP campaign for National Identity Card (advocacy by Advani & Bajpai) about 20 years ago on the lines of many countries of the world including Pakistan. Purpose was same as Aadhaar i.e. to bring transparency for checking Retail-corruption as well as identifying & tracking illegal migrants. However, when BJP came to power in 1998, they forgot it completely. BJP did nothing, literally nothing on Identification program because most of the PDS shops, Kerosene, LPG etc. are owned by BJP partymen. Thus BJP lost the lifetime opportunity to bring relief from retail-corruption to the general public. And now the cronies are having unsuccessful disinformation campaign to subvert Aadhaar.
    That way Congress party is no less. About 90% congressmen do not want Aadhaar to succeed, yet they keep quite due to fear of Sonia. The political driving forces of Aadhaar programs are Sonia Gandhi, Pranab Mukherjee, Manmohan Singh, Shiela Dixit and few more in order to make success of NREGA, Food Security welfare programs etc. The nation will remain grateful to Sonia et al because this is the powerful governance tool plus RTI devised post British-rule to weed out the Retail-corruption and bring transparency & efficiency in public administration thru e-governance. Aadhaar enabled Service Delivery (AeSD) will positively transform India.


    Mumbai One

    In Reply to Ravi S 6 years ago

    Aarreeeeeeeee PR Maharani of UIDAI and are again back with your idiotic posts...
    Also since I am calling you MAHARANI you thought of posting photos of a male LOLs

    Come on...Just answer two Qs (I know your brain is not empowered to take more than it)
    1. Who owns the UID database? Is it the Indian govt or private agencies/firms?
    2. Which is the law that regulates the collection of biometric data, and Aadhaar itself? Don\'t hide behind the lapsed executive order as any such thing become irrelevant after six months.

    BTW...Why is UIDAI afraid to reveal its contracts with spy agencies? Have guts then put it in public domain or just SHUT UP

    Ravi S

    6 years ago

    Aadhaar status {verifiable with UIDAI website portal (dot) uidai (dot) gov (dot) in}
    People registered: About 650 million (65.0 crore) i.e. over Half the population,
    Aadhaar assigned: About 520 million (52.0 crore),
    Population of India: 1,250 million (125 crore or 1.25 billion),
    Average Aadhaar rate: 1 million/ day,
    Milestone planned: 600 million Aadhaar by March-2014,
    Remaining Enrollment of 650 million continues thru NPR (Ministry of Home Affairs - Census Operations - RGI) in illegal migrant infested states and populous states like UP, Bihar, J&K, W. Bengal, TN, Arunachal, Assam, Mizoram etc. Enrollment thru NPR is done only for Citizens after weeding out the Illegal migrants.


    Mumbai One

    In Reply to Ravi S 6 years ago

    Aarreeeeeeeee PR Maharani of UIDAI and are again back with your idiotic posts...
    Also since I am calling you MAHARANI you thought of posting photos of a male LOLs

    Come on...Just answer two Qs (I know your brain is not empowered to take more than it)
    1. Who owns the UID database? Is it the Indian govt or private agencies/firms?
    2. Which is the law that regulates the collection of biometric data, and Aadhaar itself? Don\'t hide behind the lapsed executive order as any such thing become irrelevant after six months.

    BTW...Why is UIDAI afraid to reveal its contracts with spy agencies? Have guts then put it in public domain or just SHUT UP

    West Bengal resolution asks Centre to de-link Aadhaar from DBT

    According to the resolution, the decision of the Centre to link Aadhaar with LPG subsidy through DBT scheme would put the common people into tremendous hardship as 85% people in the state do not have the UID number

    The West Bengal Assembly has passed a resolution on Aadhaar or the unique identification (UID) number asking the union government to immediately withdraw the decision to link the UID with direct benefit transfer (DBT) scheme.


    The resolution, moved by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Partha Chatterjee, mentioned that only 15% people from West Bengal had received the Aadhaar numbers.


    In such a scenario, 85% of the people would not be able to get nine subsidised LPG cylinders as the Centre had linked the Aadhaar to the direct cash transfer to the respective bank accounts, he said.


    According to the resolution, the decision of the Centre would put the common people into tremendous hardship.


    Leader of the Opposition and CPI(M) member Surya Kanta Mishra supported the resolution moved by the ruling party, saying a lot of issues relating to Aadhaar were still unresolved.


    Mishra said that the Centre legally cannot make biometric enrolment mandatory and that the entire process was unscientific as there was a scope for margin of error to the extent of 20%.

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