In your interest.
Online Personal Finance Magazine
No beating about the bush.
Government pursuing UID discreetly without answering Parliament or doubts of citizens is leading to the fear that apart from sacrificing the interests of citizens, this humungous scandal when exposed and revealed will have dangerous consequences and unrest amongst people. The plight of those who have given their biometrics and iris to unknown persons will be haunting them forever. This is the second part of a nine-part series on the unique identification number scheme
Attaching numbers to people, digitizing their data, and storing these in databases is the modern IT way of branding people, so that those who ‘misbehave’ could be tracked and tackled. This is the first part of a nine-part series on the unique identification number scheme and its possible misuse by politicians, bureaucrats and foreign contractors
Intolerance of criticism or politicians’ fear of loss of office results in their need to control people. They imagine, with some justification, that IT would enable them to do so. With advances in technologies, such as biometrics, they like to, and are led to believe that it is possible to control people using these technology tools. Thus, a popular misconception is that fingerprints and other biometrics would uniquely identify a person. This is far from true.
“The Economist” of 1 October 2010, said, "THANKS to gangster movies, cop shows and spy thrillers, people have come to think of fingerprints and other biometric means of identifying evildoers as being completely foolproof. In reality, they are not and never have been, and few engineers who design such screening tools have ever claimed them to be so. Yet the myth has persisted among the public at large and officialdom in particular. In the process, it has led— especially since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001—to a great deal of public money being squandered and worse, to the fostering of a sense of security that is largely misplaced.”
It is difficult to manipulate people. Numbers are easily manipulated. IT facilitates number crunching. Hence, the logic of systems intended to manipulate people, so that they adhere to certain behaviours acceptable to rulers (politicians, bureaucrats and some business persons), is to attach numbers to people. In the ancient world, the Romans and others branded slaves. Attaching numbers to people, digitizing their data, and storing these in databases is the modern IT way of branding people, so that those who ‘misbehave’ could be tracked and tackled.
Such attempts are packaged as meant for other purposes. For example, Bush in the US passed the “Real ID Act, 2005” to incorporate biometrics in driving licenses. Blair, in UK, brought the “National ID Card Act” also in 2005. These were promoted as ways to control illegal immigration. Bush’s Act has been given a quiet burial and Blair’s scrapped.
In scrapping the Blair Act, home secretary, Theresa May, called it, “The worst of government, intrusive bullying, and an assault on personal liberties.” She added, “We propose to do government business as servants of the people, not their masters”.
Our politicians seem to think that they are rulers. They have come out with the Indian version of their people-manipulation tool. It is called ‘UID’, Unique Identification. Shedding crocodile tears, they say that it is for giving an ID to those who do not have an ID. The deceit is immediately exposed, in the UID enrolment form itself.
The Form accepts 14 other identities, like ration cards, driving licenses, PAN cards, etc. Is it not silly that no one calls this bluff? The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) claims that the ID it provides is, “a unique identification number that can be verified and authenticated in an online, cost-effective manner, which is robust enough to eliminate duplicate and fake identities.”
Giving IDs or taking them?
The UIDAI is not providing anyone, let alone those who do not have it, an identity, but it is giving each one of us a “UNIQUE IDENTIFICATION NUMBER”. Instead of giving us IDs, it is taking our existing Ids—passports, driving licenses, PAN cards, ration cards, etc—linking these to a number and giving each of us a NUMBER. We, the people, cannot identify ourselves or prove our ID to anyone. To prove one’s ID, the database has to be queried. The database is controlled by the UIDAI and its foreign contractors carry out the authentication of the ID. Hence, UIDAI and its foreign contractors control our ID.
This is why Prof Ian Angell, head of Informatics at the London School of Economics, called such central databases under government control, “The Ultimate Identity Theft”, in an article to “Times Online”. So, everyone is numbered, like the branding of Roman slaves. This subterfuge is lost on almost all people. Most people labour under the misconception that they would have a “portable ID”, which they could use to prove who they are - a convenient personal asset.
Every ID we have, be it a driving license, PAN card or passport are all ‘Portable’. Anywhere in India, these are accepted as proof of our ID. Our passports are accepted across the world. UIDAI's claim that ration cards are portable IDs and that those holding these UID number-linked ration cards could draw their rations anywhere is a lie. Even cash transfers, instead of rations, would not be possible when the ration card holder moves from one ration shop and state to which he/she is attached to another location.
To repeat what was said above, for clarity and emphasis; people are not given an ID, but a number. The number is in a database. To establish one’s ID, the database has to be queried. Who controls the database? Obviously, it is not you. It is the government, meaning some politician, bureaucrat or company official who manages the database. In this case, the ultimate control rests with the foreign private company contractor of UIDAI who provides the biometric technology and authenticates IDs using it.
A brand name for branding people
The second deceit in the UID scheme is its promotion as a tool that would prevent welfare subsidy leakages, enable access to government services and make service delivery efficient. To promote this falsehood, UIDAI has given the UID scheme a brand name, ‘Aadhaar’. The brand name is deliberately not used even once in this article. Would it not be stupid of people to promote the brand name of an evil scheme intended to manipulate them? It is mentioned here to bring out the extent of deception being perpetrated on innocent people. Again, most people are taken in by such gimmicks.
The database of all people, residing in India, with a unique number allocated to each person, is to be linked to their bank accounts, tax numbers, LPG consumer numbers, ration cards, insurance, health records, pension records and so forth. This is database state control at its worst. It reminds one of the ID cards for Indian indentured labour in apartheid South Africa and the list of Jews in Hitler’s Germany.
The deceitful way in which the UID is promoted is diabolical. UIDAI claims that it is voluntary. Simultaneously, the UIDAI says, “Service-providers could ask for it”. Next, news is put out regularly in media, stating that the UID is being ‘linked’ to LPG, MGNREGS, KYC of banks, and so on. The gullible and the timid, not wanting to be left out of government's largesse rush to enrol in UID.
Finding allies for tall claims
Tall claims of huge savings in subsidy leakages are made through the media. Initially, the UIDAI made these claims. Now it has allies doing it for the Authority. NIPFP in a recent “research study” claimed savings of Rs1.10 lakh crore in subsidy leakages by 2018. A safe bet indeed. Who would remember this, six years from now? It is astounding how a hitherto reputed organisation has fallen for this ploy and sought to justify it with some arithmetic. The so called research is based on government data and the UIDAI's claims.
The NIPFP research avoids mentioning how the UID would be applied in the field to any of these schemes. News had been leaked that "proof of concept" (PoC) studies for LPG and BPL rations were being done. On the LPG PoC, RTI queries receive responses stating that the studies are incomplete, but some news reports hint that the studies are successful. The UID is perhaps, the only project in the world in which PoC studies are undertaken well after the project is underway.
While the UIDAI claims to be transparent and media extols the virtue, RTI replies prove attempts to hide information. To illustrate, in Appendix 1 to this Monograph, are RTI applications seeking copies of UIDAI's contracts with foreign companies and their replies. The UIDAI has refused to provide copies of the contracts. In a first reply, the UIDAI said that it has signed “Non-disclosure agreements” with the contractors. In another reply, the UIDAI cited Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act, which says that information such as trade secrets, or intellectual property, which would compromise the competitive position of third parties need not be disclosed, unless it is in public interest to do so.
It was pointed out that since the contracts have already been awarded and the competitive position of the contractor companies would not be compromised. Further, the proviso to the exception under Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act, states that information that cannot be denied to Parliament or a state legislature cannot be denied to the public.
In spite of quoting the above proviso in the appeal against refusal, the UIDAI appellate authority has upheld the PIO’s refusal to furnish the information. The RTI applicant has appealed to the CIC. The First appeal also stated that since the expenditure for the contract payments are from the public exchequer, the public is entitled to know the terms of the contract. This too did not impress the UIDAI’s appellate authority.
What has the UIDAI got to hide in these contracts? Everything. These contracts would reveal all. This leads to the question posed on the front cover. Very, very few people know or realize that to be identified as an Indian, a foreign, private company would have to verify and certify that the biometric images stored in their database matches that of the person being identified. Could anything be more insulting to us? The danger to our nation’s security posed by such database control in the hands of foreign private companies is the subject of another article in the monograph.
(Col (Retd.) Mathew Thomas is a former defence services officer and missile scientist turned civic activist, campaigning against state database control of the people.)
How can any office of the government pay taxpayers’ money to private companies and not disclose the contracts to taxpayers?
In response to a RTI (Right to Information) query seeking copies of the Unique Identification Authority of India’s (UIDAI) 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.
The UIDAI magnanimously added that the RFE-2010 runs into 74 pages and that the same could be provided at the cost of Rs2 per A4 size page. The UIDAI was careful to point out that it has not signed any contract with any of the EAs. It stated, “It is the sole responsibility of the registrar to assign work order subject to fulfilment of terms and conditions mentioned in Request for Quotations”. Originally, particulars of 209 EAs were published on the UIDAI website. The number has since reduced to around 180. EAs empanelment is renewed yearly. No reasons are available as to why the number of EAs is reduced.
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.
Several instances of the government, which is the executive estate of our democracy, acting contrary to constitutional and parliamentary norms happen with discomforting regularity. The government’s actions in the UID scheme are typical of political arrogance translating into the executive domain. Firstly, The UIDAI has been functioning sans legal mandate ever since it was set up through an executive order in 2009. The UIDAI claims that such executive action is justified through constitutional provisos; a claim, if tested, might wither in the light of judicial scrutiny. If the executive function unchecked by Parliament, spend public money, intrude into people’s lives and commercialize people’s data, then Parliament would become a redundant institution.
The government’s logic is befuddling and sometimes, appears driven by expediency and political convenience. For example, when ‘Team Anna’ was pushing the Jan Lokpal Bill, the government, as well as several politicians of varying hues, waxed eloquent on the supremacy of Parliament. However, when it comes to the UID project, expediency takes over and Parliament propriety is conveniently forgotten. The executive has a highly selective approach towards such niceties as legality, honouring the institution of Parliament and accountability to the people.
Contrast this with the action of the UK government, when it scrapped the National ID Card Act of that country. They have the problems of terrorism and illegal immigration, for which the Blair government thought that a biometric national ID card system was the answer. They passed the Act, appointed contractors and went ahead. The new government scrapped the Act and the project. In doing so, the UK government said, “We propose to do government business as servants of the people, not their masters”.
Our “aam aadmi” government seems to imagine that they are feudal lords. It is time people reclaim sovereignty.
(Mathew Thomas is a former defence services officer and missile scientist turned civic activist, campaigning against state database control of the people.)