India’s government established an ambitious goal – adding its population of over 1.3 billion people to a biometric database which includes fingerprints, iris scans and photographs. The program was largely developed to aid the poor by streamlining benefits and providing a means of identity – needed to get a driver’s license or apply for a bank account. Linking the 12 digit Aadhaar number to a bank card allows the government to directly transfer cash benefits and subsidies, helping to prevent fraud. This amount of change is not without great challenges. Among the concerns are…
A Twitter account called “Rethink Aadhaar” gives witness to Indians who have suffered because scanners didn’t read their fingerprints correctly, or because their information (such as the spelling of a name) was incorrectly recorded in the database in the first place.
An Aadhaar number is now required to pay taxes, collect pensions, obtain welfare benefits – and it's even needed by children register for school. Those without an Aadhaar number have trouble getting essential benefits, including food. Children who don’t have yet have an Aadhaar number are getting turned away at school registration.
Problems in Rural Areas
Rural villages don’t routinely register births. Also many rural Indians only have one name. This makes it difficult to get a birth certificate, usually required to get an Aadhaar number. Cell phone reception is also a problem in rural areas. Without the means for a scanner to connect to the internet, how will ID authentication be made?
The Center for Internet and Security in New Delhi reported recently that Indian federal and state agencies had published up to 135 million Aadhaar numbers on unsecured websites. With the possibility for leaks such as this, many are worried that their biometric data is not safe. Unlike a PIN number which is easily changed, biometric data once compromised is compromised for life.
A program that was once thought to be voluntary is now becoming mandatory, but not without legal challenge. In response to lawyers arguing that Indians should not be forced to share their biometric data, Atty. Gen. Mukul Rohatgi “countered that Indians had no constitutional right to privacy and could not claim an ‘absolute right’ over their bodies.” Activists are concerned that government intelligence agencies will use Aadhaar database information to spy on citizens.
Supporters say the Aadhaar program will “transform governance,” saving India billions of dollars by curbing tax evasion, and by ensuring that subsidy money is not stolen by middleman. But it’s important that a program designed to be "hugely empowering" for the poor doesn’t leave the poor behind. That no Indians should be prevented from getting essential services.
India is building a biometric database for 1.3 billion people — and enrollment is mandatory
By Shashank Bengali, Contact Reporter, Mumbai, India. Published May 11, 2017, the LA Times online
Photo credit: McKay Savage from London, UK [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons (Rural Women)