Unwarranted uproar over UID

The project promises to be a boon to the marginalised

samirsachdeva

Samir Sachdeva | December 23, 2010



Criticism of the UID project appears to be like the shepherd who tricked the villagers into thinking that a wolf is attacking his flock of sheep. When the villagers found that a false alarm was raised they refused to believe when the boy was actually confronted with the wolf. In a similar manner, a group of intellectuals is trying to convey through press releases and conferences that the UID project is a threat to national security and individual privacy. The media may look into their arguments for some time, but if these people continue raising false alarms in disjointed voices everybody will stop buying their arguments.

For starters, they argue that the UID project is a national security project in the grab of a social security project. They point out that similar projects were scrapped in the US, Australia and, more recently, UK. But the fact remains that the UID number is akin to the social security number of the US and the national insurance number of the UK. It is important to understand that India was implementing two parallel projects, the Multipurpose National Identity Project  (MNIC), which was driven by the home ministry, and the UID project, which is being driven by the planning commission. The MNIC project focused on checking illegal immigrants into India from various nations like Bangladesh and was conceptualised after a supreme court judgment. A bench headed by the then chief justice K G Balakrishnan, in January 2009, had approved the idea of national identity cards for citizens based on the MNIC project to check illegal immigration. However, the current status of this project is unknown and it is believed that India has shelved it. The UID project, on the other hand, has been conceptualised to ensure better delivery of services to citizens. The UID Authority has clarified several times that the UID number, which will  be issued to all residents of India including foreigners and illegal immigrants, will not be considered a proof of citizenship. 

The activists also claim that the UID authority held no discussions with the civil society before launching the project. However, the UID website gives the details of all the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) which had been consulted and the details of discussions have been uploaded on the website. The list is a veritable who’s who of India’s civil society groups. 

The activists further point out that there was no public debate, feasibility study, cost benefit analysis etc carried out for the project. The website of the UID authority, however, gives complete details of budget, details of the outcome budget and gives information on past activity of the authority under the financial and budget link. In case of the project documents as well, all the documents, ranging from biometrics committee report to demographic and data field verification committee report, and report of awareness and communications strategy advisory council are all available online. The website also includes the documents on the role of the UID in PDS, education, Public Health, MNREGA which highlight the benefits of the UID. All the UID technical documents, guidelines to registrars, MOUs with partners are available on the website. The UID strategy document has been in circulation for a year now. Even the draft National Identification Authority of India (NIAI) Bill 2010 has been available online for feedback.

The activists also claim that the UID number will lead to infringement of privacy of citizens and pose danger of data theft. However, the UID has made it clear that the UID Authority will be capturing very limited information, like name, date of birth, father’s name, mother’s name, address, fingerprints and IRIS scans. The information, except the biometrics, is already in public domain (and even on the internet) in form of voter ID cards.

Another argument is that with the UID number Indians will be identified by a number and their status will reduce to subjects of the state. But the same could be said in the case of PAN number, ration card number, voter card number etc. Has the vibrant Indian democracy weakened in some way? Has our liberty or freedom been curtailed in some way?

The possibility of commercial interests, lack of transparency and involvement of international organisations has also been highlighted. However, a mix of domestic and international organisations have been selected by the authority.

Threats of cyber attack are another reason cited by the activists against the project. They highlight that if systems in the office of the national security advisor can be attacked then servers of the UID cannot be an exception. Does that mean banks, private organisations etc should not use networked computers either because they are vulnerable to cyber threats? The real recourse is to use best security features and a software superpower like India should be able to address this technology challenge. Anyway, the databases, as part of the e-governance mission mode projects like MCA21, income tax etc, have stood the test of time.

The concerns over infringement of privacy also appear ill-founded as the UID authority does not plan to link its data with any other database. The database will not be available to any private or government agencies either. UIDAI will only give a “Yes” or “No” in response to any identification related queries. The National Identification Authority of India (NIAI) Bill lays down the procedure for such access to limited agencies in case of national security and the computerisation process will ensure that illegal access is ruled out as the audit trail of software will capture the details of authorised and unauthorised database access.

But the risk on citizens’ rights may come from e-governance projects like crime and criminal tracking network & systems (CCTNS) and national intelligence grid (NATGRID) projects and not UID. The same need to be addressed by strict privacy law and rules which are the real need of time. Even without these projects gross privacy violations are prevalent in the country and they need to be addressed as is done in other countries. The department of personnel and training in government of India has already started discussions on a privacy legislation and the same will become a reality soon.

The UID initiative will lead to a inclusive society as it would provide a proof of address to the poor, people without homes and marginalised sections of the society. In absence of any address proof, these sections of society are not able to open bank accounts. The UID number has already been accepted by the finance ministry as sufficient for KYC norms. The number, along with the bank accounts, will help government to deliver the beneficiaries cash, subsidies, education, social benefits and more.

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