I remember a few months ago standing at the immigration line in Singapore where a German national was ahead of me. When asked to place her fingers on the scanner for her fingerprints to be captured, she refused. Instead of complying with the officer, she was questioning him – “Where is this data being stored? Who has access to the data? How will this data be protected?” It took the supervisor to come and assure her that the data that was being collected is stored securely and would be destroyed within a stipulated time frame. Her questions baffled me and left me thinking.
We give our fingerprints, iris scans, so many KYC details freely and at will, without any questions or concerns about how they are stored, who can access them, etc. Have you ever thought about it?
Just last week, there was a major leak in which the bank details of several million Indians is said to have been leaked as per a report published by the Center for Internet Security (CIS). Since the time Aadhaar cards (2009) have been introduced in India, there has been a whole range of debates and discussions around these issues. As of March 2017, an estimate of 113 crore Indians are said to have submitted all the required information and gotten themselves an Aadhaar number. Meanwhile, there has been no communication to citizens on the government’s data security measures to reassure them of the sanctity and security of the data. Moreover, the government has recently communicated to the Supreme Court that a citizen does not have absolute right over one’s body.
“There aren’t enough safeguards. It is an unknown territory we are entering into. We don’t know what it is going to be used for, how it going to be used and what the safeguards will be,” says Advocate Rahul Kumar who practices in the Supreme Court of India.
In hindsight, it should not have been surprising that the German national was paranoid about her biometric data. The Europeans extend the courtesy of data security and respect of one’s biometrics, even to visa seekers. While fingerprinting of applicants for a visa is compulsory, one aspect, which is interesting, is children below the age of 12 do not need to submit biometrics.
Their logic is simple – a child is not in a position to make a decision about willingly submitting biometric details. For Aadhaar, it is compulsory for all to submit the biometrics, regardless of the age.
Advocate Kumar went on to say, “The government’s stand is clear – there is no option but to enroll for the Aadhaar card. Up until now whether one wanted to avail the Aadhaar card or not was purely a choice and linked to the various welfare schemes that the government introduces. So not having an Aadhaar number would only mean that one could not avail the benefits of the schemes. However, post July there will be penal consequences of not having an Aadhaar card and hence it is becoming imperative to enroll for it. I will be unable to file my tax returns, my PAN card gets revoked, and my bank account can be potentially closed, so it no longer is voluntary.” Aadhaar is taking dimensions which were not envisaged, and is treading into unchartered territories.
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Taking on the Aadhaar project has been a huge task for India. Reports suggest that the state and central exchequers have saved close to Rs 36 crore due to the implementation of the Aadhaar cards. It is also said that once everyone registers, the scope for better deployment of welfare schemes and savings will multiply. There are obvious positives of a non-duplicatable, unique ID for every citizen. It does help immensely in delivering government services, reduces fraud, tax evasion and is a good way to deliver targeted benefits to citizens without leakages and frictional losses.
However, it is an uncharted territory and the government needs to understand that not all voices of apprehensions are about evading the Aadhaar net for the wrong reasons – and that there are real, genuine concerns that the citizens have about the sanctity, usage policies and security of such a powerful tool.