India’s Big Brother Project

Malavika Jayaram discusses India’s Unique Identity (UID) project, which is already the world’s largest biometrics identity program. This article was originally published on the Boston Review on May 19, 2014 and can be found here.

India’s Unique Identity (UID) project is already the world’s largest biometrics identity program, and it is still growing. Almost 600 million people have been registered in the project database, which collects all ten fingerprints, iris scans of both eyes, a photograph, and demographic information for each registrant. Supporters of the project tout the UID, which is run by a government agency, as a societal game changer. The extensive biometric information collected, they argue, will establish the uniqueness of each individual, eliminate fraud, and provide the identity infrastructure needed to develop solutions for a range of problems. Detractors see these claims as hype, pointing out that despite the potential benefits, critical concerns remain about the UID’s legal and physical architecture as well as about unforeseen risks associated with the linking and analysis of personal data.

The most basic concerns regarding the UID project stem from the fact that biometric technologies have never been tested on such a large population. As a result, well-founded concerns exist around scalability, false acceptance and rejection rates, and the project’s core premise that biometrics can uniquely and unambiguously identify people in a foolproof manner. Some of these concerns are based on technical issues—collecting fingerprints and iris scans in the field, for instance, can be complicated when a registrant’s fingerprints are eroded by manual labor or her irises are affected by malnutrition and cataracts. Other concerns relate to the project’s federated implementation architecture, which, by outsourcing collection to a massive group of private and public registrars and operators, increases the chance for data breaches, error, and fraud.

Perhaps even more vexing are concerns regarding how the UID, which promises financial inclusion (by reducing the identification barriers to opening bank accounts, for example), might in fact lead to new types of exclusion for already marginalized groups. Members of the LGBT community, for instance, question whether the inclusion of the transgender category within the UID scheme is an attempt at inclusion, or a new means of listing and targeting members of their community for exclusion. More fundamentally, as more and more services and benefits are linked to the UID, the project threatens to exclude all those who cannot or will not participate in the scheme due to logistical failures or philosophical objections.

It is worth noting that the UID is not the only large data project in India. A slew of “Big Brother” projects exist: the Centralised Monitoring System (CMS), the Telephone Call Interception System (TCIS), the National Population Register (NPR), the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS), and the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), which is working to aggregate up to twenty-one different databases relating to tax, rail and air travel, credit card transactions, immigration, and other domains. The UID is intended to serve as a common identifier across these databases, potentially creating a massive surveillance state. It also facilitates an ecosystem where access to goods and services, from government subsidies to drivers’licenses to mobile phones to cooking gas, increasingly requires biometric authentication.

The UID project was originally promoted as voluntary, but the inexorable slippery slope toward compulsory participation has triggered a series of lawsuits challenging the legality of forced enrollment and the constitutionality of the entire project. In September 2013, India’s federal Supreme Court affirmed by way of an interim decision that the UID was not mandatory, that not possessing a UID should not disadvantage anybody, and that care…

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This essay is an updated version of a paper that originally appeared in Internet Monitor 2013: Reflections on the Digital World, published by the Internet Monitor project at Harvards Berkman Center for Internet & Society. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Featured Image from Boston Review


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