Can India’s Biometric Identity Program Aadhaar Be Fixed?


By Jyoti Panday – The stakes in the Aadhaar case are huge, given the central government’s ambitions to export the underlying technology to other countries. Russia, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand have expressed interest in implementing biometric identification system inspired by Aadhaar.

The Sri Lankan government has already made plans to introduce a biometric digital identity for citizens to access services, despite stiff opposition to the proposal, and similar plans are under consideration in PakistanNepal and Singapore.

The outcome of this hearing will impact the acceptance and adoption of biometric identity across the world.

At home in India, the need for biometric identity is staked on claims that it will improve government savings through efficient, targeted delivery of welfare. But in the years since its implementation, there is little evidence to back the government’s savings claims.

The architects of Aadhaar also invoke inclusion to justify the need for creating a centralized identity scheme. Yet, contrary to government claims, there is growing evidence of denial of services for lack of Aadhaar card, authentication failures that have led to death, starvation, denial of medical services and hospitalization, and denial of public utilities such as pensions, rations, and cooking gas.

During last week’s hearings , Aadhaar’s governing institution, the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI), was forced to clarify that access to entitlements would be maintained until an adequate mechanism for authentication of identity was in place, issuing a statement that “no essential service or benefit should be denied to a genuine beneficiary for the want of Aadhaar.”

The UIDAI was established in 2009 by executive action as the sole decision-making authority for the allocation of resources, and contracting institutional arrangements for Aadhaar numbers. With no external or parliamentary oversight over its decision-making, UIDAI engaged in an opaque process of private contracting with foreign biometric service providers to provide technical support for the scheme.

The government later passed the Aadhaar Act in 2016 to legitimize UIDAI’s powers, but used a special maneuver that enabled it to bypass the House of Parliament, where the government lacked a majority, and prevented its examination by the Parliamentary Standing Committee.

The manner in which Aadhaar Act was passed further weakens the democratic legitimacy of the Aadhaar scheme as a whole.

It emerged during the Aadhaar hearings that UIDAI has neither access to, nor control of the source code of the software used for Aadhaar CIDR (Central Identities Data Repository). This means that to date there has been no independent audit of the software that could identify data-mining backdoors or security flaws.

The Indian public has also become concerned about the practices of the foreign companies embedded in the Aadhaar system. One of three contractors to UIDAI who were provided full access to classified biometric data stored in the Aadhaar database and permitted to “collect, use, transfer, store and process the data” was US-based L-1 Identity Solutions.

The company has since been acquired by a French company, Safran Technologies, which has been accused of hiding the provenance of code bought from a Russian firm to boost software performance of US law enforcement computers.

The company is also facing a whistle-blower lawsuit alleging it fraudulently took more than $1 billion from US law enforcement agencies.

By delegating the collection of citizens’ biometrics to private contractors, UIDAI created the scope for the enrollment procedure to be compromised. Hacks to work around the software and hardware soon emerged, and have been employed in scams using cloned fingerprints to create fake enrollments.

Corruption, bribery, and the creation of Aadhaar numbers with unverified, absent or false documents have also marred the rollout of the scheme. more>

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