The UID project which is being rolled out with much fanfare by the government has innumerable pitfalls. Here are a few of them
Aadhaar with its biometrics and the ability to facilitate convergence of information-bona fide or otherwise-has the potential to compromise privacy and put people in trouble.
When such privacy concerns are raised, the oft-repeated rhetoric among the educated middle class is: "I am a law-abiding citizen and I do not have much to hide and fear. So, why should I be concerned with my personal data, including biometrics, being stored under the Aadhaar project, especially if it can make my life convenient?"
Well, if you are one of those who thought likewise, here are a few plausible ways in which you could be in trouble, thanks to Aadhaar and its indiscriminate use in the not too distant a future.
Scenario 1: Techie tries to change his job…
Ram is an upwardly-mobile young techie who is proud of his status. He is in love with the digital world; not bothered too much about issues around privacy. He is active on most of the social networking sites. He is proud of his connectedness. He has been the first one to get Aadhaar; he felt it would make his day-to-day transactions a lot more hassle-free. He has submitted his Aadhaar ID to all his previous employers, since it afforded him some additional benefits and privileges.
Recently, he has got a call from an MNC promising him an overseas assignment. He is excited about the opportunity. He has had a successful technical round. However, to his dismay, he is rejected after the HR round.
Trying to find the reason, he contacts an acquaintance in the company. To his surprise, he comes to know that the culprit is Aadhaar. A background check using Aadhaar by a company engaged by the MNC has revealed his problems with his boss in one of the companies he had worked for a long time back. He is not given a chance to explain himself but is presumed troublesome and rejected. He curses himself for being overzealous in his usage of Aadhaar.
Scenario 2: Sham tries to buy Medical Insurance...
Though Aadhaar was optional in the beginning, most of the clinics and hospitals have started insisting on it citing identity reasons. Sham is a middle-aged IT manager who has seen the convenience of using digital identity cards in his office. It is logical for him to think that using Aadhaar would prevent any misplaced identity. He does not think twice when someone asks him for Aadhaar.
Over the past few years, given the stress of his job, he has had episodes of "High Blood Pressure", treated occasionally at a few local clinics. In all those clinics he has unwittingly used Aadhaar. His doctors have told him that there is nothing chronic or serious about his occasional high BP. He has been able to manage his condition with minor lifestyle changes.
Now that he is approaching middle age, he decides to take out a medical insurance cover for himself. Most of the insurance companies have started insisting on Aadhaar for enrollment. After completing all the required formalities, he gets his insurance policy. He is puzzled to find that he has been denied insurance coverage for 'heart ailments'. He versifies that his BP, ECG and other conditions were normal during the prescreening test. On further questioning, he is told that he has a preexisting high BP condition. The culprit - Aadhaar!
The insurance company has done a background search on him using his Aadhaar ID and found out that he had taken some medicine for high BP sometime back in the past, though he is no longer on any medication. His argument that he has no chronic heart condition goes in vain.
Scenario 3: Saralamma becomes a suspect in a crime she did not commit…
Saralamma is a retired school teacher; very law-abiding. As soon as Aadhaar is rolled out, she is the first to get one. Someone has told her that her pension collection and bank transactions would be a lot easier with Aadhaar. She is not the one who is too concerned about what data is being collected; most of which she does not understand anyway.
Recently, she has received some arrears. She has decided to buy some silverware for her only daughter. She has checked out a specific set, but decides not to buy, as the cost is beyond her budget. After a few days, to her surprise, she gets a call from a security agency. There is a theft at the same jewelry shop she had visited. One of the items in the set that she had looked at is stolen. As part of the investigation, fingerprints are collected from items in and around the set. They are run against the biometrics stored by the UIDAI managing Aadhaar.
Alas, one of the fingerprints on the silverware matches that of Saralamma. She is asked to explain as to why she should not be considered a suspect. Saralamma is aghast as she does not understand how she got linked to the crime she did not commit!
Scenario 4: John loses money on a transaction he did not make…
John runs a travel business. He maintains his account with a cooperative bank which has signed up with Aadhaar for complete authentication services. In addition to the account number, he is required to give his Aadhaar number and fingerprints (biometrics) to complete any transaction.
One of his assistants has his eye on this account. He has found out that if he could capture the fingerprints of his boss, he could have fakes made to defraud the system. He transfers the drinking glass which has his boss' fingerprints to one of the petty shops which have recently sprung up to create fake fingerprints using digital scans, illegally.
With the dummy fingerprints of his boss in hand, he successfully withdraws the money. When John gets his monthly transaction report, he is shocked to find a huge withdrawal. When he questions his bank, he is told the Aadhaar-based biometrics has confirmed his identity and there is not much they can do about it!
Scenario 5: Ajay's son is denied admission to school …
Ajay has lived most of his life in the US. He has relocated back to India a couple of years back. He admits his son to one of the pre-schools. As part of the admission process he is asked for his son's Aadhaar; it has become more or less compulsory to monitor the progress of the child. Unfortunately, Ajay's son has some minor developmental disability. His pre-school documents this fact against his son's Aadhaar.
Now that his son is six years old, Ajay is desperately looking for a school for his son. He can even afford admission to any of the newly started international schools. To his surprise, he finds most of the schools denying admission. On investigation, he finds that the unique identity provided by Aadhaar is the cause. A background checking agency, employed by the schools, has done a search based on the Aadhaar ID and discovered that his son has a mild development disorder. Given that information, none of the schools want to take a chance!
The above examples are just a small sample of the scenarios that are very plausible. Though Aadhaar is currently optional, it is apparent that overtime it would be mandatory. Even if some of the scenarios depicted above can be avoided with stronger privacy laws, in a country where enforcement is lax, one wonders whether such misuses can be completely prevented.
Vulnerability of securely-stored digital information to theft has been exposed by recent leaks that have surfaced both nationally and internationally. As someone has commented, a safe digital record is an oxymoron. Some of the recent experiments have amply demonstrated how biometric fingerprints can be duplicated using technologies that are almost homemade. If you are still skeptical, read Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes's story, The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.
(Ramdass Keshavamurthy is a Bengaluru-based Technology Consultant)
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