Answering the Aadhaar criticism

Last few days I have heard many arguments on social media and some news channels on how Aadhaar is evil and how the government is setting up something intrusive. Frankly, I was unable to find any strong arguments. What I found I have tried to counter here. I am open to other arguments on negative effects of Aadhaar.

The arguments

  • While today you support the government, tomorrow another government may come in. What if that government/ dictator wants to conduct a genocide – Such a powerful database at their hands will be disastrous. Honestly, I have heard of no dictator that went— “Let me kill a few hundred thousand people, Wait I don’t have a nice database. Ok, plan canceled let’s go and sip some Cosmopolitans”. In the past in Delhi 84, Mumbai 92, Gujarat 02 people have been targeted using voter rolls, if someone wants to do mass murder the lack of a national identity registry will not stop him or her.
  • It is intrusive – could be but this also the country where Arun Jaitley’s phone was tapped and even Pranab Mukherjee as finance minister received a call—Sir, do you want a personal
  • Violation of privacy – We live in a world driven by Facebook and Google we are looking at privacy far off in the rearview Every time you click one of those “Which historic seducer/seductress do you look like” apps you give an unknown entity (maybe Korean/ Russian/ Chinese hackers) information such as who you are, where you work, where you went to school and others. Even a simple game like Candy Crush can get your full Facebook profile. Google knows more about you than your spouse generally does. Most criminal cases in India today are cracked by police getting access to phone location records ( most often without a formal magistrate’s order)
  • Security and Private sector companies such as Jio getting access to your fingerprints. This is patently false –what happens is the Aadhaar platform can be accessed by APIs which returns fingerprint in an encrypted mode which is just checked by the Jio platform and not stored by them. It’s similar to keeping your first crush’s name as your bank password. Don’t worry your bank doesn’t know about the special one that got away.

Further, nobody seems to have a problem using fingerprint unlock on your phones even those made by Chinese companies with dodgy ownership. As with any technical trend fingerprint security on phones has reached maturity level and will be widespread on almost all devices. It is strange that we can’t trust one of India’s largest listed firms using our data from our own government managed platform but are gladly providing fingerprints to the Oppos/ Xiaomi/ Vivo’s of the world.

Yes nothing in the world is fully secure ( ask Hillary Clinton) but that said we can make continuous improvement on this.- Ensure that encryption levels are strong, data is stored on secure Militarized Zones and security regularly certified by third-party auditors.

  • Someone even told me that in future fingerprints could be stolen and put on murder weapons or used for other frauds. The problem with this argument is that once we start talking about what ifs in the future we can’t stop—what if robots take over, what if Skynet rules the world. Should we then start building terminators or better still Terminators riding Transformer trucks dressed in an Iron Man suit?

On a serious note as of today such technology is not available if and when it becomes easy to get your fingerprint on a pen drive and put it on a knife fingerprints will not be acceptable evidence in the same way as many medieval methods are no longer admissible in court.

It may sound like all these arguments apply for the upper echelons of society. It is not. I am from Mumbai, this is a city where literally thousands of people daily drop their pants and defecate on rail tracks in front of another million traveling in a train. So critics want to go to someone who forever has been relieving himself in public and tell him that Aadhaar may give you some benefits but take away your privacy. The irony sings

As I mentioned earlier Aadhaar will largely help government deliver subsidies and benefits to the underprivileged and help reduce leakages (more on that later) however most of the arguments are from the affluent section of society who are exposed to these risks from other sources. For example, any travel to US, UK or Schengen countries requires bio-metric applications. Strangely it is OK with giving biometrics to foreigners but not to Indians. In fact the bio-metrics along with bank statements, IT returns and others are given to not just a foreign country but private unregulated companies who manage visa processing. No one has ever protested against that.

A valid counter-argument is that such details (including Google? Facebook information even if we never read terms and conditions) are given voluntarily whereas the Government is trying to force us.  The reason you need to push people to get an Aadhaar card is for any system like this to succeed you need nearly 100% compliance. For example, it will be pointless if tax filings with Aadhaar are optional— It will defeat the purpose of ensuring that dummy returns are not filed.

Here the other aspect of Aadhaar comes in. Any government scheme/interface is at best non-comprehensive at worst full of holes. The ration card is completely corrupted with multiple fakes. The PAN Card has not even hit half the population and yet has many dummy PAN numbers, the Passport even less coverage. We have to use a national ID to roll out services in a manner without leakages. Few weeks backs thousands of fake students were discovered in the midday meal program, there are apparently 31million fake National Employment Guarantee cards. The NREGA gives every card holder 100 days of paid employment—imagine the loot 31m * 100 days of employment at the rate of at least Rs100 per day!!

Thus the necessity of Aadhaar is to deliver the correct subsidy to the correct person at the lowest cost. The fact that Aadhaar today has the highest penetration among national documents and with an added layer of biometrics opens it up for multiple use cases of delivering governance and preventing fraud. It is this very Indian necessity of fraud prevention, due to which we need biometrics unlike Social Security numbers of other countries.

All said and done frauds can happen (a few instances with Aadhaar has happened) but those, in my opinion, are risks which will happen in any initiative in any sphere. More people die due to bicycle accidents than flying –DO we stop our kids from cycling? The answer is being careful and getting the maximum benefit and that is where we are moving with payments and taxation being enabled and empowered through the Aadhaar platform.

To end I will cite a personal instance. After my twelfth grade, as many other confused students, I tried backing up my engineering chances with a career in medicine ( don’t ask me why?). I actually had a decent entrance score and I was eligible for a dentistry seat at one of Mumbai’s best dental colleges. At that time you needed to prove via a domicile certificate that you have lived in Maharashtra for more than 15 years for a medical seat. My father in his naivety thought that since I had the birth certificate of Mumbai and 14 years of formal education in Mumbai and residence proof I don’t need a certificate which states that I live here for 15 years. On the verge of paying my fees, my admission was denied as I didn’t have a domicile certificate. By the time I finally got one it was too late. Aadhaar may or may not solve such bureaucratic mess what I know is the Aadhaar platform and other digital services can only help in reducing pain and delivering benefits to the common man.

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