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Aadhaar: One number to rule them all

A weapon for mass control, or a tool for progress?

Assuming that you haven’t been living under a rock, you probably already know what Aadhaar is – the world’s largest biometric ID system or as the paranoid amongst us see it – an attempt by the man to get a ton of sheeple on to the grid.

With over 1.133 billion members already enrolled in the system, the debates about privacy, identity theft, and surveillance have long been rendered moot. The system has holes, it’s been leaking data steadily for a long time. As I was writing this, the wires were hot with the news of a Jharkhand state government website accidentally displaying names, addresses, Aadhaar numbers, and bank account information of lakhs of pensioners in that region. And this is just one of many such instances so far. For a long time, the following search term was being used to hunt these errant databases: Aadhaar number name filetype.xls -uidai. Thankfully, the search term was written about so much in the media that if you run it now, you’ll find news articles about it rather than excel sheets containing Aadhaar numbers.

There is, of course, a flipside to all this. While Aadhaar might look to some like an Orwellian construct designed to subjugate the largest population on earth, it does have its benefits. As India hurtles down the path of progress, Aadhaar will be an important tool to cut out middlemen, to clamp down on corruption, and to ensure that subsidized goods and services by the government reach the intended people (needy and poor) directly. In a technologically secure environment, it could be used for anything from mundane conveniences like biometric-based micropayments at merchants to being able to find and reunite missing children. I’ve personally heard of a few success stories from high-ranking government officials which involved databases being cross-referenced or merged, and fraudsters being caught. Cases in which the same individuals who are supposed to be below the poverty line on one database, have high tax return filing in another and are claiming gas subsidy in yet another.

Everyone wants accountability, but no one wants to be held accountable.

The biggest debate raging right now is whether the enrollment should be made mandatory. Should the disbursement of govt social welfare, everyday bureaucratic procedures like availing loans, filing tax returns, etc., be denied for want of an Aadhaar number? My personal opinion is that if getting that number is relatively easy, why not?

Everyone wants accountability, but no one wants to be held accountable.

Meanwhile, the supreme court has dug its heels in, and believes that Aadhaar should not be made mandatory for availing welfare schemes; in fact, it has questioned the government about this recently. The funny thing is that the Aadhaar Act’s expanded name itself is the “Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services” Act.

“What’s the worst that could happen?,” is an important question to answer. As any anthropologist tries to look for naturally occurring instances of a given experiment, I began to look for other examples of centralised biometric registries in the world. As unique as Aadhaar is in terms of scale, surely, it cannot be the only initiative of its kind? It’s not.

Ghana has its NIA, Brazil has its Abrid, Malaysia MyKad (one of the oldest), and Indonesia its eKTP. While the first world has been resolute in its opposition to centralised biometric databases and identity registries, I couldn’t find any significant reports of intentional governmental abuse of biometric data either against an individual or a certain section of the community. Though the possibility of such abuse always exists.

This possibility doesn’t sit well with privacy advocates.

Be that as it may, the truth remains that even as the debate rages among the elite about whether enrollment should be made mandatory – most people have gone ahead and got themselves registered for Aadhaar. Not only themselves, they are now starting to get their young children registered too. Those with a slightly restricted access to Aadhaar (remote areas) are desperate to get themselves registered. It seems like the only people who are unwilling are the super rich, ‘intellectuals’, and internet SJWs (who might have secretly registered themselves, while continuing to rant about it online).

What do you guys think? Weapon for mass control, or tool for progress? Let me know.

Siddharth Parwatay

Siddharth Parwatay

Vertically challenged geek. Interested in things like evolution, psychology, pc gaming, history, web culture... amongst other things.