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No beating about the bush.
Spending very little or no money at all on independent research or developing biometric solutions, the UIDAI is partnering with companies which have proprietary technologies and upfront loyalties with foreign governments
While the atmosphere in the country is revolving around 'clean' images - which recently has uprooted three top politicians from their respective 'chairs' of power, some government undertakings, however, seem to be ignorant of the change in the winds.
Take for example, the tenders and contracts awarded by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) - the 'de facto' agency assigned to tag all residents - appears to be opaque in nature. Especially some of the companies and their top managements do have a tainted background and thus have been 'hammered' in the media across the globe.
The UIDAI had selected three consortia - Accenture, Mahindra Satyam-Morpho and L1 Identity Solutions - to implement the core biometric identification system for the Aadhaar programme. UIDAI has stated that the three agencies would design, supply, install, commission, maintain and support the multimodal automatic biometric identification subsystem. The three vendors would also be involved in development of a multimodal software development kit (SDK) for client enrolment stations, the verification server, manual adjudication and monitoring functions of the UID application.
L1 Identity Solutions in particular has names associated with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other American defence organisations in its top management or as directors. Although there is nothing wrong in having former top government officials as directors in a company, it is often looked upon as something not quite right. Post-retirement, many top government officials have joined hands with fat profit companies that deal in their areas of expertise. In fact, in many countries, it has now become a trend.
Thousands of other former intelligence officers who have left the CIA and other agencies have returned as contractors, often making two or three times more than what they were making in their former jobs. According to a report published in 2008, contractors were responsible for at least half of the estimated $48 billion a year the US government spends on intelligence. The real figures are kept hidden under the pretext of 'national security'.
L-1 Identity Solutions is one of the largest defence contractors in the US and specialises in selling face-recognition systems, electronic passports such as Fly Clear and other biometric technology to over 25 countries around the world. L-1 is also employed by the US State Department and the Department of Homeland Security for passports, visas, driving licenses and transportation worker ID cards. And the company is on the path to becoming a monopoly in the US, especially for providing Real ID and driver's licenses in that country.
In 2004, George Tenet, ex-director of CIA, joined L-1 Identity Solutions as director on the board. L-1's chief executive Bob LaPenta, in 2006, had said, "You know, we're interested in the CIA, and we have George Tenet."
According to company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Mr Tenet was provided with 80,000 shares of L-1 stock when the company acquired Viisage, where he was also a director. Currently Mr Tenet's name does not appear on the company site.
Mr Tenet is also accused of being one of those who deliberately furnished false evidence to US diplomats in order to garner support for the US 'intervention' in Iraq, post 2001.
However, there are other names like Admiral James M Loy, who is also on the board of Lockheed Martin. Admiral Loy is former Head Secretary of the US Department of Transportation and has also served as deputy undersecretary for Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
BG (Buddy) Beck, another director on L-1's board, was a member of the Army Technology Science Board, which advises and makes recommendations on scientific and technological matters to the US Army.
Milton E Cooper is former Chairperson for the Secretary of the Army's National Science Centre Advisory Board and was Chairman of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.
Robert S Gelbard, who served as President Clinton's Special Representative for the Balkans, Ambassador to Indonesia and Bolivia, was also Assistant Secretary of State during 1993-1997. He is one of the directors of L-1 Identity Solutions.
Over the years, particularly after taking some top-notch 'retired' intelligence and defence officials on board, L-1 Solutions has made rapid progress.
According to an IT expert, L-1 and NADRA, the Pakistan unique identity agency, appear to have been created on the same business model. "Staffed strongly by persons with intelligence (quasi-military) links, the major goals of both agencies are to do business with their respective governments, and they succeed to the extent that they have virtually no competition. And this is the company UIDAI has welcomed into India," said the expert.
However, there is some furore at present in the US following news that France-based aerospace and defence company Safran is going to buy L-1 Identity Solutions for about $1.1 billion.
According to an agreement, L-1 will put its government consulting services business up for sale for $295 million to a third party. One of the bloggers said: "Just think about how happy you can feel now knowing that your personal information including your social security number and biometric information (fingerprints, iris scans and digital facial images) may soon be available to a French company. The federal government must sign off on the deal before the deal can be sealed. All this brings us back to the topic of the revolving door that exists between government and corporations."
Even, Safran is not so clean when it comes to hiring retired government officials. Michael Chertoff, the former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, is a strategic advisor to Safran.
As far as the issuing of IDs to residents or citizens of any country is concerned, here is what Mark Lerner, from the Constitutional Alliance and author of the book 'Your Body is Your ID', had said...
"Sarcasm alert - the final titbit of information comes from the International Biometrics Agency. For all of you that keep talking about a New World Order or a One World Government, please stop such ridiculous rumours. Julian Ashbourn speaking as the Chairman of the International Biometrics Agency set our minds to rest when he said the following: "What information do governments share? With whom is my data shared, and why? All of these questions need to be addressed by an agency with global powers.
An agency with global powers? Perhaps I am naive, but I always believed we live in a sovereign country. You may have heard of our country, The United States of China. No, that is not right, The United States of Britain. I will get it right; the United States of France. This country thing is really getting hard to remember. We have the surveillance cameras like Britain; we use facial recognition like China to identify dissidents and we sell L-1 to a French company. Thank goodness for my granddaughter, she just reminded me of what Congress and others have forgotten, this is the United States of America," Mr Lerner said. (Read original posting from Mr Lerner here: http://naturaltreasure.net/scameras/?p=1200).
The UIDAI has rolled out its ambitious UID or Aadhaar project. However, there is no information or update about the progress of Aadhaar, except from Mr Nilekani who said the same would be made available in two weeks.
Nandan Nilekani-led Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which started collecting data, including biometrics and issuing unique identification (UID) numbers to people does not have any update on the progress.
Moneylife sent a mail to Mr Nilekani asking about the progress of its ambitious UID project, Aadhaar. We asked him about the total number of people enrolled for Aadhaar, the number of de-duplications required for fingerprints, iris scan and face pictures (all forms part of biometrics) and the number of cases where de-duplication was not possible. (De-duplication means to eliminate duplicate or redundant information).
We asked the UIDAI chairman if its database is ready for authentication process and number of people who have successfully authenticated their UIDs at least once as well as percentage of false positives and negatives during the authentication. Moneylife also asked if the authority can share the statistics and update it on a regular basis.
We received just one line mail from Mr Nilekani, in which he says, "We will be shortly be having a Public Data Portal on our website www.uidai.gov.in within two weeks which will answer all the relevant questions in your email."
Separately, according to a report from the Hindu, the government of Kerala, the only State that mandates the use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in governance recently found that the client enrolment software used is only compatible with Windows.
The UIDAI is using a software that is compatible only with Microsoft's Windows operating system (OS), for its ambitious UID or Aadhaar project. However, this has irked many activists as well as advocates of open source software since UIDAI itself has mandated that all the middleware used in Aadhaar must be vendor neutral. This means it should not be dependent on any particular software and must work across the OS or platforms.
In Kerala, which has embraced open platforms, this is a vexatious issue because virtual device managers, which provide an interface for applications to devices such as biometric devices - are not Linux-compatible, the newspaper report said.
Kerala has declared that it will provide the UID number to over 60 lakh schoolchildren in the state under the UIDAI initiative and has selected Akshaya, [email protected] and Keltron as enrolment agencies for the work. However, in countries around the world where a national ID card system is being used, these IDs are given only to those above the age of 14 years and not to school-going children between five years and 14 years of age. (Read Is the UIDAI database vulnerable? http://www.moneylife.in/article/78/9594.html )
What is interesting in the case of Kerala is all three agencies appointed to do the enrolment of students use only Linux OS, which is completely different from Windows OS. Speaking with the Hindu, Ashok Dalwai, deputy director-general, UIDAI, said this is a "Kerala-specific issue." He confirmed that all enrolment software is 'purely for the Windows platform.' "For now, we have asked Kerala to go ahead with laptops with Windows. Our developers will work towards Linux compliance later," he told the newspaper.
This has left many activists and advocates of open source software furious as they feel depending on a particular vendor, especially Microsoft, which is known for its Windows and the unending security issues associated with the OS, to speed up the UID process.
Just last month, VK Saraswat, scientific advisor to the defence minister said that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) would spearhead an effort to develop India's own futuristic computer OS to thwart cyber crimes like data theft.
Mr Saraswat, who is also director general of DRDO, said, "In today's world, where you have tremendous requirements of security on whatever you do... economy, banking and defence... it's essential that you need to have an operating system."
UIDAI has been facing criticism for rolling out UID numbers to 'residents' and not to 'citizens' of India in addition to privacy and security issues related with its database. Many activists and analysts are now questioning the motive behind the authority's approach to align with one particular vendor and diluting its vendor neutral mandate.
It is important that the UID project be halted and a committee be appointed to look into the various issues plaguing the project; further, a thorough feasibility and impact assessment study is needed before more taxpayer money is spent on this venture
Today's Hindustan Times carries an article titled 'Unique ID plan hits advisory panel roadblock'. The article states that some of the members of NAC (the National Advisory Council, an apex body appointed by the prime minister and headed by Sonia Gandhi, UPA chairperson), have raised serious concerns about the UID project.
"There is no real informed debate on the project which has enormous potential of segregating the population (based on few parameters). It is a matter concerning people at large - public money being spent to profile common public," a member told Hindustan Times, adding the opinion is shared by some more people in the council.
"There is a vast difference between the census and UID. Without explaining what it means, memorandums of understanding (MoUs) are being inked with private companies. They say UID would reform systems like the public distribution system (PDS), but no detail of how it will is available in the public domain," said activist Aruna Roy.
The NAC of India is an advisory body set up to monitor the implementation of the UPA government's manifesto, the Common Minimum Programme (CMP). It is a brainchild of Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi. It is also informally called as UPA's Planning Commission for social agenda.
The NAC is a mix of activists, retired bureaucrats, economists, politicians and an industrialist with unstinting passion for social change.
To give an instance of the stellar record of the members of the NAC, here is a brief from their Wikipedia profiles.
Aruna Roy is a political and social activist who founded and heads the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana ('Workers and Peasants Strength Union'). She is best known as a prominent leader of the Right to Information movement, which led to the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2005. In 2000, she received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.
Anu Aga is an Indian businesswoman and social worker, who led Thermax Ltd, the Rs 830-crore energy and environment engineering major, as its chairperson from 1996-2004. She had figured among the eighth richest Indian women, and in 2007 was part of the 40 Richest Indians by net worth according to Forbes magazine.
After retiring from Thermax, she took to social work, and in 2010 was awarded the Padma Shri (Social Work) by the Indian government.
Jean Drèze is a development economist who has been influential in Indian economic policymaking. He is a naturalised Indian of Belgian origin. His work in India includes issues like hunger, famine, gender inequality, child health and education, and the NREGA. He had conceptualised and drafted the first version of the NREGA.
His co-authors include Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen, with whom he has written on famine, and Nicholas Stern, with whom he has written on policy reform when market prices are distorted. He is currently an honorary Professor at the Delhi School of Economics, and Senior Professor at the GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.
Deep Joshi is an Indian social worker and NGO activist and the recipient of the 2009 Magsaysay award. He was recognised for his vision and leadership in bringing professionalism to the NGO movement in India. He co-founded a non-profit organisation, Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN) of which he is the executive director. He was awarded the 2009 Magsaysay award for Community Leadership for his work for 'development of rural communities'.
Some of the members of the NAC want answers to questions about UID. Nandan Nilekani, UIDAI chairperson, was supposed to address the NAC on Monday, but apparently the discussion has been postponed to late September.
As has been stated by various articles, these concerns are not just valid but are of a very serious nature. To put it bluntly, the UID is building an infrastructure for future authoritarianism in the country. It is most important to thrash these concerns out completely. In fact, it is important that the UID project be halted and a committee be appointed to look into these issues deeply; further a thorough feasibility and impact assessment study is needed before more of taxpayer's money is spent on this project. What is at stake is not just possibly hundreds of thousands of crores of taxpayer's money, but democracy itself.
Let us hope that the esteemed NAC members will have a thorough discussion with UIDAI regarding this issue, and resolve these issues.
(The author has a B Tech from IIT Bombay, and a PhD from Columbia University, New York. He currently runs a start-up, Teknotrends Software Pvt Ltd that does cutting-edge work in the area of network security).