In your interest.
Online Personal Finance Magazine
No beating about the bush.
Indians are accustomed to advertising and falsehoods. But when it comes to advertising by biometric technology companies, uninformed citizens and even the non-Congress leaders are willing to trust even the most untrustworthy of claims
Among other things, will the general elections of 2014 reveal whether or not Indians are willing to be guinea pigs for biometric technology companies? It will disclose the identities of those political parties who take donations from such companies or are beneficiaries or their shareholders.
Biometric identification will impact human civilization in a far deeper way than printing press, industrial revolution, light bulb, Internet and personal computers did. The introduction of these automatic identification technologies marks the beginning of a world where everything and every place gets imbedded with such spying identifiers.
More than four years have passed but opposition parties in particular and non-Congress parties in general are yet to consolidate their considered position vis-à-vis biometric data collection in the name of e-governance initiative of Indian National Congress led Government. Meanwhile, Nandan Nilekani, the chairman of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) under the Planning Commission boasts, “We have made India the tech capital of biometrics” He has disclosed, “We felt speed was strategic. Doing, and scaling things quickly, was critical. If you move very quickly, it doesn’t give the opposition the time to consolidate.”
Strategically, state governments led by opposition leaders like Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi too were conned into signing memorandum of understanding (MoU) with UIDAI before August 2010. Strangely, Modi who was categorically opposed to collection of biometric data submitted himself for 12- digit biometric unique identification (UID) number and launched it in Gujarat. Due to paucity of information even Admiral Nirmal Varma, Chief of Naval Staff and His Holiness Dalai Lama have already enrolled for UID number, which is linked to National Population Register (NPR), without the passage of Privacy Bill. It is incomprehensible as to who compelled Dalai Lama to enroll for it.
In a manifest case of inconsistency even Yashwant Sinha headed Parliamentary Committee on Finance was conned into recommending that the data already collected by UIDAI be transferred to the NPR after questioning the power of the union government to collect biometric data. The 48-page Report of Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on Finance submitted to both the Houses of Parliament reads (in the section on Observations/Recommendations): “The collection of biometric information and its linkage with personal information without amendment to the Citizenship Act 1955 as well as the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules 2003, appears to be beyond the scope of subordinate legislation, which needs to be examined in detail by Parliament.” The Parliamentary Committee did not realise that both the Centralized Identities Register (CIDR) of UID number and UID number generating NPR is one and the same as per the terms of reference of the UIDAI provided in the Planning Commission’s notification dated 28 January 2009.
NPR, CIDR and National DNA data bank projects are going to do almost exactly the same thing, which the predecessors of Adolf Hitler did, else how is it that Germany always had the lists of Jewish names even prior to the arrival of the Nazis? The Nazis got these lists with the help of IBM, which was in the 'census' business, including racial census that entailed not only counting the Jews but also identifying them. At the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, there is an exhibit of an IBM Hollerith D-11 card sorting machine that was responsible for organising the census of 1933 that first identified the Jews. IBM has not disputed its involvement in it.
Nilekani’s book Imagining India describes the ‘Dividends of an autocracy versus a Democracy’ and contends that “In terms of implementing policies that are good for you, whether you like it or not, autocratic regimes are better than democracies”.
As part of World Bank's Tranformational Government initiative, the core idea is to ensure convergence of all the residents and institutions underway through Project UID. This is a Silicon Valley initiative (dominated by Biometric technology companies) passing off as “Planning Commission initiative” without consultation at district and panchayat level and within the political parties to create a central database of residents and generate a unique identification number for all such residents which is proposed to be “used as the basis for identifying and authenticating a person's entitlement to government services and benefits”. This initiative is being steered by the Department of Information Technology (as the Line Ministry) through National Informatics Centre Services Inc/ National Informatics Centre (NIC), as the technical solution provider and a consultant for “linking of existing databases, as well as providing for future additions, by the user agencies.” This entails tracking and profiling residents electronically through some 53 departments of the Government of India, 35 State/UT Secretariats and 603 District Collectorates. NIC was formed in 1975.
These initiatives are sub-sets of the universal set called Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations (PIII) for a National Knowledge Network that is being pursued by Sam Pitroda who is another Advisor to the Prime Minister in the rank of a Cabinet Minister without oath of office and secrecy. PIII reveals the plot emphasizing digital network to process all kinds of information at all levels saying, “For government, PII is very important to first identify all beneficiaries, essentially people. We also at the same time need to identify all our physical assets all over the country, like primary schools, railway stations, hospitals. Then, we also need to tag all our programmes-and government typically would have hundreds of programmes for public delivery systems. Once you tag people, places, and programmes, then it is easier to really organise information for delivering public services. Hopefully, with new focus on PIII, where we could essentially tag people, tag places, tag programmes, we will be able to structure delivery systems to get a lot better in terms of productivity, efficiency and reduced cost. The starting point for this nationwide network of fibre optics, wireless systems to connect 2.50 lakh Panchayats all over the country, especially in rural areas, where ultimately, information data gathering would begin. This is where beneficiaries are.”
All this information will be in the hands of a few ‘trustworthy’ people in the government and few select ‘patriotic’ companies. Such a situation is fraught with both unintended and intended consequences impacting monetary and non-monetary aspects of citizens’ life. It may be noted that the Land Titling Bill, 2011 makes a provision for linking UID Number with property as per its Section 10 and Section 36.
The gullibility of the non-Congress parties to these initiatives is intriguing given the fact that Government has admitted, “There is no data protection statute in the country.”
While UIDAI and the Indian National Congress-led Government have been misleading the citizens/residents and the media about the UID Number scheme being voluntary, the ‘Legal Framework For Mandatory Electronic Delivery of Services’ of Union Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, refers to “UIDAI – UID based authentication for services” as an enabler, thus making it compulsory.
Initially, it appeared puzzling as to why it was taking so long for UIDAI and its initiatives to get legislative sanction after Parliamentary Standing on Finance disapproved of The National Identification Authority of India Bill 2010 and its project on several counts. But this puzzle got solved on 10 October 2013, when Nilekani told people of Bangalore’s Koramangala, his potential political constituency for 2014 elections:
“See, the legislative sanction is not for Aadhaar. The government has ample legal opinion to say that they can do Aadhaar without legislative backing. The purpose of the law is to create a regulatory agency to manage the use of it and to manage penalties and fees […] It’s a common thing for the government to start an activity, and then pass a law because…Parliament and all that, so there’s nothing that prevents us from doing this, except that in the long run we want a regulatory status for autonomy purposes and to manage this whole thing. So the law will come.”
His ministerial statement about ‘Parliament and all that’ makes a mockery of Parliament, which has been subjugated by keeping Secretary Generals of both Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha on contract.
But it is inexplicable as to how 30 State Governments signed MoUs with UIDAI before August 2010 without realizing that it is a threat to the constitution as it erodes State’s autonomy for good. This is revealed from a presentation given by Nilekani to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance on 4 August 2010 even before the Bill was referred to it in December 2010.
When it is apparent for the Indian National Congress led Government that Supreme Court is likely to issue an adverse order on 22nd October after the Court on 8th October refused to modify its 23rd September order on the application of the government, the Union Cabinet approved a Bill on that very day to give statutory status to the UIDAI which provides biometric identifier numbers.
The Bill is likely to be re-introduced in the winter session of parliament during November-December. Its earlier version was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in December 2010 but was trashed by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance. Section 57 of the earlier Bill provided that UIDAI’s acts of omission and commission since 28 January 2009 be rubber stamped by the Parliament to underline that whatever it did had the consent of the Parliament. It remains to be seen whether the same has been retained by the Union Cabinet’s new version of the Bill. Union Cabinet’s approval of the Bill is likely to meet the same fate as its approval of the Bill to protect legislators from disqualification even after conviction in a criminal case.
Supreme Court is all set to pass a landmark ruling on the legality of UIDAI and its biometric collection akin to the judgment of 10 July 2013 that had struck down the legal provision that protects a lawmaker from disqualification even after conviction. The notification of Planning Commission dated 28 January 2009 is likely to meet the same as the ordinance that was meant to protect the disqualification of legislators.
All the political parties other than Congress seem to be deaf when it is admitted by Nilekani that “biometrics as a tool of surveillance”. He says, “So, like, you go to America today, you land at JFK airport and they take your fingerprint and your [iris scan]…and they do some…funny thing with it. So they have looked at biometrics as a tool of surveillance and…and all that. In our case, we said, let us use this technology in a very different way. We’ll use this technology to give a unique identity to everyone. And that is what we do.”
Admittedly, the biometric tool is for surveillance but the gullible seem to believe even what is unbelievable-it is for delivery of identity proof and social entitlements. Although Indians are accustomed to advertising and falsehoods purveyed by them but when it comes to advertising by biometric technology companies uninformed citizens and the non-Congress leaders are willing to trust even the most untrustworthy of claims. Nilekani, the vendor, has been on record for stating that success or failure of biometric identifier is dependent on marketing alone. Isn’t Nilekani a member of the Congress?
All the parties other than the Congress have a political duty to ensure that the enactment of Privacy Bill, 2011 precedes initiatives like Public Information Infrastructure, NPR and CIDR else the very purpose of the proposed legislation is defeated. Before the creation of Data Protection Authority of India (DPAI) as envisaged under Section 49 of the Privacy Bill and Central Electronic Services Delivery Commission (CESDC) under Section 8 of the Electronic Delivery of Services Bill, 2011 with proven impeccable judicial competence, the implementation of all biometric data collection related programs must be stopped both in private as well as in the government.
The 15th Lok Sabha in particular witnessed the wanton autocracy of the ruling party. In her address to both the Houses of Parliament, Pratibha Patil, the President, on 4 June 2009, said, “The Unique Identity Card scheme for each citizen will be implemented in three years overseen by an Empowered Group. This would serve the purpose of identification for development programmes and security”. The President disclosed that UID is meant for “security” purpose. It is something, which has not been disclosed by Nilekani. She also revealed that this is meant for “each citizen” even as the Government misled saying that it is meant only for usual residents. In an illustration of how ignorance rules the roost in the Congress led Government even the President was not informed that UID is a biometric identifier number and not a card. The President had informed that it will be implemented in three years. If that was the case why was Nilekani given tenure of five years since July 2009? By now it is clear that the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) that supervised UID initiative has attempted to make legislatures irrelevant and powerless in due course.
On 21 February 2013, in his address to both the Houses of Parliament, Pranab Mukherjee, the President said, “An important initiative that my Government has taken recently is the rollout of the Direct Benefits Transfer system. This would enable Government sponsored benefits such as scholarships, pensions and maternity benefits to flow directly into the accounts of beneficiaries, who can access them using their Aadhaar number. In due course, the Direct Benefits Transfer System will also cover wages and subsidies on food and LPG. This system will help cut down leakages, bring millions of people into the financial system and lead to better targeting of beneficiaries. It will be a trend-setter in the use of modern technology to bring benefits to our poorest citizens, especially in rural areas. However, the Direct Benefits Transfer System will not be a substitute for public services and will be complementary to the Public Distribution System.” The Supreme Court has put a stay on this illegitimate initiative.
Hasn’t the Congress become a marketing wing of ‘foreign’ biometric technology companies? How does one explain the ID Limelight Award given to Nilekani at the ID WORLD International Congress, 2010 in Milan, Italy on 16 November 2010 during the Conference sponsored by AB Notes, the key sponsor of the ID Congress and Safran Morpho (Safran group), a French multinational corporation? The award was given within less than one month of the launch of biometric UID/Aadhaar number by Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh on 29 September 2010. Nilekani joined UIDAI in July 2009 and got the award within 14 months. What miracle did he perform in such short span? How will the Congress justify the contract awarded by Nilekani to Safran’s subsidiary, Sagem Morpho Security Pvt Ltd for the purchase of Biometric Authentication Devices on 2 February 2011 after getting the ID Limelight award from them?
Non-Congress parties who seek votes against the Sonia Gandhi led (well indirectly) Government must be made to declare that they will abandon biometric data collection the way it has been done in UK, US, France, China and Australia. There is a compelling logic for the voters to reject those parties, which implicitly or explicitly support tracking, profiling, databasing and mortgaging of citizens’ rights and their sovereignty under the dictates of their donors and non-state actors.
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(Gopal Krishna is member of Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties (CFCL), which is campaigning against surveillance technologies since 2010)