According to some experts, the least that needs to be done is that UIDAI should make a comprehensive case to justify why what was rejected in the UK is good for India
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has been busy assembling bits and bytes for its ambitious citizen identification (ID) project. However, in another part of the world, a similar identification project has now been scrapped by none other than the UK government. This has given a boost to pro-privacy architects in India who are worried about the privacy implications of the UID project.
The scrapping of the National ID programme by the new government in the UK was not unexpected. Many people, organisations and even some politicians were questioning the viability of the NID project. According to a BBC report, the NID scheme was aimed at tackling fraud, illegal immigration and identity theft—but it was criticised for being too expensive and an infringement of civil liberties.
Theresa May, UK's home secretary, was quoted as saying that the NID will be abolished within 100 days with all cards becoming invalid. The new government would put legislation to this effect before Parliament with an aim to make it a law by August. Around 15,000 people who voluntarily paid £30 for a card since the 2009 rollout in Manchester, will not get a refund, the BBC report says.
What’s interesting is that the UK government has cited higher costs, impracticality and ungovernable breaches of privacy as reasons for cancellation of the NID project. These reasons may have a similar kind of impact in India as well.
According to some experts, the least that needs to be done is that UIDAI should make a comprehensive case to justify why what was rejected in the UK is good for India. They feel surprised about why the media has not publicised the reports that the UK has rejected the UID primarily because of concerns regarding civil liberties.
"One hopes that the UID-related contracts awarded already to E&Y and MindTree do not have any lingering after-effects, should commonsense (we don't have a great track record in commonsense, especially where money is concerned, but it's never too late to hope) hit our government and the UID agency be asked to pack up its tents," said one expert.
While announcing the abolition of NID in the UK, Ms May said, “This Bill is a first step of many that this government is taking to reduce the control of the state over decent, law-abiding people and hand power back to them. With swift Parliamentary approval, we aim to consign identity cards and the intrusive ID card scheme to history within 100 days."
Back home, according to UIDAI, the first UID numbers will be issued from August 2010. Over five years, the Authority plans to issue 600 million UIDs. The numbers will be issued through various ‘registrar’ agencies across the country, UIDAI said on its website.
Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee had sanctioned Rs1,900 crore for the UIDAI in his budget for FY10-11. According to a document on UID numbering available on UIDAI's site, systems that are to be as widely used and for multiple different applications as UID, tend to be very sticky in the sense that these systems would be in active use for centuries. Once a billion plus people have been assigned a UID, and applications using the UID to conduct their transactions are evolved, anything that requires modifications to existing software applications and databases will cost a lot.
Over eight years, the UK government spent around £250 million on developing the national ID programme. However, its abolition means the government will avoid spending another £800 million over a decade. The NID was launched in July 2002 and as of February 2010, its total costs rose to an estimate of £4.5 billion.
The Cost of the UID project may not be a hindrance for the Indian government, whose accounts are flush with money from the 3G auction, but what about its impact on civil liberties? Will there be a comprehensive discussion on the subject? One can only hope that the Indian government and the UIDAI closely study the reasons for the UK government’s decision to scrap its National ID project and then provide compelling reasons for India to go ahead with its UID project.
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