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India’s grand data system: a greater disaster than Facebook?


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Prime Minister Modi has enthusiastically campaigned to expand digital governance via the Aadhaar system. But millions of Indians are at risk because the system with all their personal ID leaks like a sieve and the govt response has been appalling

 

India has no coltan or rare earths, little oil, and not enough water. What it does have is people – 1.3 billion and counting. That makes India potentially very rich in what has been called the “new oil”: data. But who will benefit from that wealth, and who might be put at risk?

 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi undoubtedly likes collecting data. Since becoming prime minister in 2014, he has led an enthusiastic campaign to expand digital governance, hailing its efficiency and extolling its capacity to transform the country.

 

Biometric devices are now used to track the attendance of students and teachers in schools, and of government employees at work. Following his disastrous demonetization scheme in 2016, Modi has urged Indians to make digital, not cash, payments, even for small transactions.

 

More ambitiously, Modi’s government has expanded the reach and scope of India’s scheme to issue to all residents a “unique identification number,” or Aadhaar, linked to their biometrics. The primary goal of the program – initiated in 2009 by the previous Congress party-led government – was originally to manage government benefits and eliminate “ghost beneficiaries” of public subsidies, thereby preventing the pilfering of state funds.

 

When the Aadhaar scheme was introduced, Modi – then the chief minister of Gujarat – vociferously opposed it, pledging to scrap the project if his Bharatiya Janata Party came to power. As prime minister, however, Modi has embraced the program, ordering that the identification numbers be linked to virtually everything. Bank accounts, school enrolment, mobile-phone contracts, travel records, hospital admissions, and even cremation certificates now all require an Aadhaar, despite Modi’s assurances to the Supreme Court that participation in the program would not become mandatory.

Political hegemony is PM’s goal

Modi’s objectives extend far beyond efficiency. He has unabashedly declared that data is “real wealth,” and that “whoever acquires and controls” it can attain “hegemony.” And political hegemony is Modi’s goal. He has spent the last four years centralizing and consolidating power, and his BJP has gained control of 22 of 29 states, complementing its lower-house majority with a likely majority in the upper house (which is elected by state assemblies).

 

But Modi’s apparent vision of India as a country where Big Government meets Big Data has hit many snags. Machines meant to authenticate Aadhaar holders have often failed, particularly in rural parts of the country, owing to a lack of Internet connectivity or electricity. As a result, far from helping the poor, the Aadhaar scheme has prevented many poor people from claiming their Public Distribution System (ration) supplies – a violation of their rights.

 

Making matters worse, the Aadhaar program leaks like a sieve. An investigative journalist at The Tribune newspaper was able to purchase five million ID numbers for a mere 500 rupees ($8). On a government oil and gas company’s website, anyone with basic technical skills could uncover the names, bank details, and Aadhaar numbers of more than 500 million Indians. Nearly 16 million Aadhaar numbers were accidentally exposed by the Ministry of Rural Development. And the details of another 20 million people in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh were revealed on a database of unorganized workers.

Denial, complacency, concealment

Overall, the Aadhaar program leaves participants far more compromised than even, say, the 87 million Facebook users whose personal data were wrongly shared with the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. Yet, in response to such revelations, Modi’s government has offered only denial, complacency, and concealment.

 

This failure to protect data seems to be a pattern with Modi. In 2015, he invited his supporters “to receive messages and emails directly from the prime minister” by downloading and installing the “Narendra Modi mobile app” on their phones. “No intermediaries, no media, no officials, no red tape,” he promised. The Android version of that app was downloaded more than five million times.

 

But there was a catch: the data to which Modi’s followers gave the app access – including their photographs, contact lists, and GPS data, as well as their microphones and cameras – were shared with a US firm. The app’s users did not know that this would happen, let alone consent to it, as it wasn’t included even in the fine print. And while the app’s privacy policy has since been changed, that US firm retains the previously acquired data, which it could use for commercial purposes today and for who knows what else tomorrow.

 

The challenges associated with collecting and protecting data will only intensify in the years to come. It is estimated that 90% of the world’s data have been generated in the last two years alone. In India, that percentage may be even higher, as increasingly ubiquitous 4G services and increasingly cheap Internet-enabled smartphones have recently enabled millions to get online – and offer up significant amounts of personal information.

 

India will be the land of Big Data. The question is whether it will also be the land of the Big Leak. So far, the country lacks strong data privacy and protection laws. My own attempt to introduce one in a private member’s bill was repeatedly thwarted by parliament-stalling disruptions. To protect the people who are generating all of that data wealth that Modi so covets, he must follow through on his campaign promise to deliver “minimum government, maximum governance.”

 

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Oh yes, quite true — most of what's stated in the article. F3h9xqz.gif

 

According to the Government, more than 90% of the population already owns a Aadhaar Card — people are not against the idea of Aadhaar . . . . but they hate being arm-twisted into linking their Aadhaar details for every little matter. h4CvlGL.gif

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Another relevant article: "Viewpoint: The pitfalls of India's biometric ID scheme"

More than a billion Indians now have the biometric-based 12-digit personal identification number called Aadhaar, which means foundation in Hindi. What started as a voluntary programme to tackle benefit fraud has now grown into the world's most ambitious, and controversial, digital identity programme. Mishi Choudhary writes on why most advanced countries are not adopting similar identification programmes.

If Aadhaar is such a wonderful technology platform, why are the most technologically advanced countries not scrambling to adopt it or similar structures for their people?

 

In many of the other highly-developed societies in Europe and North America - and in the view of many computer scientists and policy-makers who study and advocate for policy in this area - using single number identity systems for everything is simply not a good idea.

 

In 2010, the United Kingdom abandoned a similar scheme of a national identity card linked to biometric information.

 

Israel has a smart card identification system with no fingerprints where data is not stored in any centralised database but stays only on the card.

 

The US has no such nationwide, all-encompassing program and only two states - California and Colorado - fingerprint driving licence applications.

 

Biometric information is collected by most of these countries only for visitors but not for their own citizens.

Connecting bank accounts and voter registration to biometrics is a trend seen only in China, some countries in Africa, Venezuela, Iraq and the Philippines.

 

Centralised government-controlled databases of biometric and genomic data create high levels of social risk. Any compromise of such a database is essentially irreversible for a whole human lifetime: no one can change their genetic data or fingerprints in response to a leak.

 

Any declaration by a government that its database will never be compromised is inherently far-fetched. No government can argue that its flood prevention or public health system will never fail under the pressure of weather or disease. The goal of policy is risk management, not perfect risk-prevention.

 

In the case of Aadhaar, we have seen no adoption of traditional security measures well regarded in the industry to fix exploits, bugs or vulnerabilities.

 

What we have seen is a lot of shooting the messenger and attractive marketing to hard sell the benefits of Aadhaar while underplaying privacy and security issues.

Surveillance

Misuse of the database for state surveillance and targeted coercion is also unpreventable.

 

Anyone committing her data to such a system is betting for her lifetime that her government will never become totalitarian or even strongly anti-democratic, lest she be subjected to forms of oppression she cannot possibly evade.

 

These are not merely theoretical concerns of Luddites or anti-innovation activists but already being perfected by countries like China.

 

The Xinjiang region of China, which has long been subject to tight controls and surveillance has seen vast collection of DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans and blood types of people aged 12 to 65. This information is then linked to residents' hukou, or household registration cards.

 

This system limits people's access to educational institutions, medical and housing benefits. Combined with facial recognition software, CCTV cameras and a biometric database, the unprecedented level of control being attained is being presented as an example of the great technological strides the country is making.

 

The fact that Aadhaar has expanded beyond its original goals and that comprehensive surveillance profiles of citizens are already being offered by companies, confirms the fears about misuse of data for surveillance.

 

At the same time the risks of catastrophic failure are difficult to manage in a centralised single-number system and the problems of ordinary operation are non-trivial as well.

 

If an ordinary retail transaction is verified by "secure" authentication over a single-number system for instance, the seller need only surreptitiously retain both the number and the confirming biometric data in order to be able to seamlessly forge future transactions.

 

An inexpensive thumbprint reader meant for a market vegetable vendor, for example, can be inexpensively modified to remember all the thumbprints it scans.

 

Several thousands of instances where beneficiaries have been denied benefits like pension and food assistance because of failed authentication are being reported everyday from different parts of India.

 

To several entrepreneurs eying "data-based innovation", these are merely "teething problems" of a system that once matured will reduce all kinds of identity fraud and weed out corruption.

Multiple approaches

But to several others, it is a matter of daily survival and deprivation of subsidised food and rations that was the original intent of this scheme.

 

For these reasons, European and North American technologists and policy-makers prefer solutions that treat identity as a probabilistic - based on or adapted to a theory of probability - quantity.

 

In their decentralised approaches, multiple data sources and forms of identification are overlapped to get as high a probability of correct identification as necessary.

 

This means not relying on only one form to confirm a person's identity and allowing for different forms to be used to enable diversification of risk that comes from having one centralised structure.

 

India's Supreme Court is currently hearing a batch of petitions challenging Aadhaar.

 

The court had ruled through interim orders passed earlier that Aadhaar registration cannot be made generally mandatory, yet it has before it numerous petitions concerning large numbers of social services for which Aadhaar registration has been made mandatory.

 

We are all waiting for this powerful court speaking for the world's largest democracy on issues now coming to the fore in all societies.

 

Let's hope that once again the Supreme Court places India in the vanguard of the constitutional democracies and presents an example to democratic societies.

 

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