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Fear of UID Number’s Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR) being Wikileaked
Fear of UID Number’s Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR) being Wikileaked
At the annual Rajinder Mathur Memorial Lecture, Nandan Nilekani, Chairperson, Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) at the India International Centre Annexe Auditorium, New Delhi on December 2, spoke on Unique Identification Number: "Aadhaar – Its role in inclusion and public service delivery transformation".
The talk was followed by a question and answer session. Nilekani faced questions on issues ranging from privacy concerns, misplaced claims about benefits to migrant workers, food security and NREGA. There was no convincing answer about the estimated total budget for UIDAI. He kept referring to the budget of the first phase which is Rs 3,000 crore.
Questions were raised about UID Number compromising national security similar to what Wikileaks has done. Nilekani said, it is for the government to combat such threats. It is being done through a proposed legal framework that is being envisaged to safeguard the privacy of the resident’s data and also take care of the security requirements of the country.
Interestingly, he said, laws to curb the theft and misuse of personal data need to be put in place but only after the UID Number scheme is implemented. The talk happened in the backdrop of the proposed UID Bill scheduled to be introduced in Parliament this week. The National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 shows that this is what is exactly happening.
Amidst massive opposition, Nilekani claimed that there no mass movement to oppose the UID Number scheme. The students present raised grave concerns about the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the UIDAI which is meant to create a system to track students through an electronic register besides the Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR), right from the primary level through secondary and higher education and imprinting of the UID number on the performance records of students, including mark-sheets, merit certificates and migration certificates.
As the debate on the UID grows, more and more groups of concerned citizens, former judges, jurists, parliamentarians and policy makers have expressed their worries over the world’s largest data management project. Even moderator of the Memorial Lecture, Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor-in-Chief CNN-IBN expressed his concern about privacy over leaked tapes between journalists, political leaders, bureaucrats and the big corporate groups. The question about the share holding pattern of the UIDAI officials, including Nilekani and conflict of interest emerging from it did not get any convincing response.
The fifteen minute lecture was followed by a question and answer session. Mr Nilekani faced questions on issues ranging from privacy concerns, misplaced claims about benefits to migrant workers, dismantling of public distribution system for food security and NREGA and a whole host of others.
Under the protective eye of Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN, Nandan Nilekani seemed in discomfort when faced with a barrage of questions from senior journalists, students and concerned citizens. “This is not an inquisition”, said Sardesai in an attempt to protect Mr Nilekani. He told the audience that the meeting was for Editors Guild members, and that others had been allowed to attend, but they could not be allowed to interrogate Mr Nilekani.
One question concerned the budget for the UID project. Mr Nilekani referred to the Rs 3000 crores that have been sanctioned for the current phase of the project, but provided no figure that would account for the whole project. Ruchi Gupta asked how the project was able to proceed without financial scrutiny when estimates ranged from Rs 45,000 crores to Rs 1.5 lakh crores, and when the Food Security requirement of a thousand crore rupees had been referred to the Rangarajan Committee for scrutiny. Mr Nilekani had no figure to offer as estimated expenses of the project, nor was he able to the matter of financial scrutiny.
In dismissing comparisons with similar (and now scrapped) UK and US programmes, Mr Nilekani argued that that the UK’s ID number scheme is distinct from the UID Number because in India it is meant for bettering social services, rather than the UK where the purpose was surveillance. He, inaccurately, compared the idea of a UID Number instead with the US concept of social security numbers.
On the question of conflict of interest given his corporate relationship with Infosys, Mr Nilekani said that he now has only equity in Infosys and nothing else; that in any event contracts were dealt with by other people in the organisation; and, that, if a situation arose where they Infosys came into the deliberations, he would recuse himself from that part of the proceedings.
Mr Nilekani said that privacy was a problem that went beyond the UID and it was for the government to enact a law to protect privacy. He referred to a process in the DoPT which may produce the framework for privacy legislation. [Of course, this is still in its nascence, and a document that was on its website specifically refers to the UID as a tool for convergence of various silos of information, and therefore making a privacy law necessary and urgent.]
Mr Nilekani asked the audience to accept that, at the end of the day, the residents of India (not citizens) have to weigh between the risks and benefits of UID.
Journalists, time after time, spoke of the growing opposition to the UID project. They also referred to the statement issued by those working on the MGNREGA, and its repeated run on a television channel through that day. Mr Nilekani gave it as his opinion that there is no opposition to the project except by a few individuals. He was asked if he had consulted Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze and others, and he said, yes. But he was then asked why, if he had indeed consulted them, their objections had not been factored into the project and the law that was being made. His only answer was “all interests had been taken on board”.
A group of students who had come to express their worries and to get answers, raised grave concerns about the social and psychological consequences of signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the UIDAI which is meant to create a system to track students through an electronic register besides the Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR). The electronic register will track students right from the primary level through secondary and higher education and imprint the UID number on the performance records of students, including mark-sheets, merit certificates and migration certificates, and the Midday Meal Scheme too would be tracked and recorded using the UID. They were concerned that problems that they may encounter in their growing years would mark them for the rest of their lives. Mr Nilekani responded by asking them to look at it differently; that it would help poor children get into the system (he did not say how). The students persisted and asked what had to do with tracking them, and also asked the about misuse of the data, which is endemic. Mr Nilekani’s response was that and that there was a need for `balance’.
The question of how this education – and indeed, all other claimed benefits – will be better operationalised by this new Identity Number scheme over those currently in existence (like ration cards, PAN cards, etc.) was left open. Concerns over future invasions of privacy were (un)answered by saying “the poor will be included in the system.”
While the UID Number is based on biometric data, placing reliance on such data is questionable. There was reference made to a recentstudy titled “Biometric Recognition: Challenges and Opportunities”published by the National Research Council in Washington, DC. The Economist in its October, 2010 issue cites this study, concluding that biometric recognition is “inherently fallible”. Even the pilot study conducted by the UIDAI on 250,000 persons noted that 2-5% of the persons taking part did not have usable biometric data, making its incorporation as a major factor in the project immensely problematic. Mr Nilekani’s claim at the meeting was that the proof of concept studies have been completed, they would be uploaded in a few days, and they showed that in 99.9% cases, it worked.
Mr Nilekani was hard pressed to find convincing answers, and had to be repeatedly protected from uncomfortable questions. Journalists present raised many concerns that are now making the rounds, and it was evident that Mr Nilekani is not equipped to address these concerns.
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