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>


American lessons for India

By neglecting science and public welfare, the US is losing the marathon in some respects
By Dipankar Gupta – We look up to America for a number of good reasons. But there are a few cautionary tales as well, especially in the area of public spending.

The US, however, rarely looks outside its borders, east or west, for ideas. The Midwest, the country’s navel, is where it gazes most often. This is where elections are won or lost, and where homebred culture and cars are made.

Between 2000 and 2017 there have been as many as 25 train mishaps in the US, prompting the head of Amtrak to confess that the latest crash is a “wake up call”. It took 60 years, between 1940 to 1999, for 25 train accidents to happen, but only 15 years since to clock that number.

This graphically demonstrates how rapidly public railways have declined in America. We are not starting on the subject of the 56,000 US bridges that need urgent repair. This may sound and taste like India, but we are still talking America.

According to Mark Reutter of Progressive Policy Institute, in the first 13 years after 1956, as much as 46,350 km of interstate roadways were built and, tragically, 95,600 km of rail tracks taken out. In an ironic coincidence, 1956 was also the year when Japan started planning its high speed trains.

Railways have never won state support in the US after their heydays in the 1930s and 1940s. Politicians complain that trains will never make money, so why fund them? In Europe, the calculations are very different.

For example France’s prestigious, high speed TGV train service makes regular losses but gets government money anyway because the public benefits from it.

Not only does TGV reduce travel time, its wide network has also brought booms to towns, like Lille, that had gone bust in the 1950s. China’s high speed train system is also not a financial success, but the country is going ahead with planning a 500 kmph railway system anyway. more>


Aadhaar After Privacy

By Ananth Padmanabhan, Madhav Khosla – This attempt to present a fait accompli of sorts when the constitutional challenge to Aadhaar comes up for hearing is not a new development. Yet, the Court’s privacy verdict has put both linking and enrollment efforts on overdrive. Even private actors have stepped on the accelerator, and not a day goes by without mails and messages from banks and telecom companies asking customers to link their Aadhaar number with their bank accounts and mobile numbers, respectively.

But amidst all this bustle, what are Aadhaar’s realistic chances of survival post-Puttaswamy?

The fear of a digital panopticon is real for the simple reason that desirous individuals need not necessarily approach the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) to form a complete picture of the various services availed by a citizen. The authentication records also exist in the multiple government offices, ration shops, and other service centers from where welfare benefits are disbursed to citizens.

In fact, the data leakages ailing Aadhaar have all occurred thus far from similar end-points where personnel in charge of our data have little training and even lesser interest in keeping such authentication records confidential.

The data leakages, in fact, are telling not only because they challenge the mantra that the program is technologically safe, and not only because they simply represent a state program that contains flaws and operates below expectations in practice, but because the nature and upshot of the leakages calls into question the safeguards on which the legitimacy of the program rests.

Furthermore, the UIDAI’s role poses serious institutional and rule of law concerns. On one hand, it is the custodian of the Central Identities Data Repository. On the other hand, it is also the data regulator.

As a regulator, it is tasked with deciding on how to deal with data breaches. Thus, we have a body that has minimal incentive to report or act upon data breaches because a vulnerable database architecture does not bode well for either its financial or power incentives as a data custodian. Any breach is, plainly put, a challenge to its authority. more>


PM Modi’s Digital India will fail without mass IT awareness programs

A major hurdle towards implementing the Digital India mission is the digital divide in the country.
By Pradipto Chakrabarty – While the Digital India initiative is great on paper, its execution has been far behind schedule.

Even though mobile penetration in India is high, Internet connectivity is one of the lowest in the world. Without connectivity, the effectiveness of digital services is hugely compromised.

Lack of language and digital literacy in using technology to access and use information is another problem. Although inexpensive smartphones are available, most people — especially in rural and semi-rural areas — have no idea how to use them.

The root cause of such barriers is our under-resourced education system and abysmally low IT awareness among user communities. more> more>


Why is Trai even considering bill and keep model?

Airtel boss Sunil Mittal, in a letter to Trai chairman R.S. Sharma, says ‘at a loss as to why Trai should be considering bill and keep model’ and break away from the global practice of interconnect user charges
By Amrit Raj – What surprises the most, he wrote in the 24 July letter, is no one has talked about abolishing IUC (interconnect usage charge) for international call settlement, which is prevalent across markets.

Neighboring countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal charge about 2-13 cents. Similarly, when the calls come into India, Trai has set an IUC to be paid to the mobile operators at 53 paisa and, in turn, the Indian international operator charges approximately 1 cent as IUC for the incoming calls on their network.

“The Trai not even debating this issue, therefore, confirms Authority’s acceptance to the principle that IUC is indeed a settled global practice built on fair and equitable settlements for work done by each operator for carrying each other’s calls,” Mittal said.

Mukesh Ambani-controlled Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd is pressing for the bill-and-keep model, wherein IUC (paid by the telco from which a call originates to the telco which receives the call) will be effectively scrapped.

Rivals Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India Ltd and Idea Cellular Ltd, on the other hand, want these charges raised to at least 30 paise per call from 14 paise now. more>



Can India be First World?

We dream of leapfrogging to First World status, here’s how to do it in real life
By Sanjeev Sabhlok – What will it take for India to become a First World nation?

Such a question is about matters more important than mere economic growth.

It is about freedom, rule of law, justice, separation of religion and state. Such a question can reset our expectations and start a meaningful conversation about what we want to be as a nation.

It is time for us as a nation to step back and look at the big picture. The facts that face us are not pleasant.

Transparency International has ranked Indian governments as the most corrupt in the Asia-Pacific region. Our businesses, despite being one of the world’s best, continue to be let down by our governance system. We continue to rank close to the bottom on ease of doing business. We remain one of the least free countries in the world.

We do not protect private property. We do not have credible rule of law. The concept of justice is largely fictitious. There is very little infrastructure. Our school systems are dysfunctional. Vocational training is non-existent or of very low quality. And we continue to be one of the world’s poorest countries.

Second, we need to redesign our governance system. Today, neither ministers nor bureaucrats are accountable. They see themselves as rulers. We need to invert this mindset and hold our servant – the government – to account.

No First World country has India’s antediluvian, super-centralized IAS-type tenured service to govern everything. more>


Three consortia led by Alstom, Siemens and Stadler Bussnang eye Rs 2,000 crore ($310m) coach factory project

By Rajat Arora – The proposed rail coach factory that would produce coaches with aircraft-type interiors is expected to come up on railway land in Kanchrapara near Kolkata on a public-private partnership basis and will involve a total investment of Rs 2,000 crore.

This is the second-largest tranche of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the rail sector under the government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative.

The first major FDI in railways came in 2015 when projects to set up two locomotive factories were awarded at a total cost of Rs 3,300 crore ($511.5m). more>


If BJP wins 2019, will there be a 2024 election?

Don’t underestimate RSS opposition to the idea of India
By Salman Anees Soz – I believe RSS and BJP view the 2019 election as an important milestone in their desire to realize their long-standing dream of establishing a Hindu rashtra.

I believe the likelihood of India’s conversion to a Hindu rashtra has never been greater. Most government institutions are brittle. Indian democracy as we know it, stands at the precipice.

Two issues are of particular concern. First, there is very little acknowledgement of the possibility that there was always an alternative Hindutva idea of India and that it had significant support. Second, those of us opposed to Hindutva often do not look at the world from the perspective of its proponents. The game, however, has changed.

RSS is resolute in its “idea of India” as a quintessentially Hindu country. It has toiled hard for decades in pursuit of this vision. The Sangh Parivar has always had a core base of support. This leads me to believe that there was a section of Hindu society that felt aggrieved that after the creation of a country for Muslims, Hindus were denied their own country.

This grievance has simmered for decades as the Gandhi-Nehru vision prevailed and the first past the post system kept Hindutva forces from gaining power at the national level until 1998. The defeats of 2004 and 2009 delayed the project but the 2014 election finally provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Hindutva proponents. BJP had an aspirational narrative, an astute strategic approach, a compelling leader in Modi, boots on the ground and a real hunger for power. more>


India’s inward nuclear turn

It has taken 12 years for the Indo-US nuclear deal hype to give way to sober realism
By Brahma Chellaney – India, duped by its own hype over the nuclear deal, had announced plans to import Western reactors costing tens of billions of dollars. The Indian plans helped to motivate Toshiba to acquire Westinghouse – a takeover that ultimately proved a huge blunder, plunging Toshiba into a grave financial crisis.

Having invested considerable political capital in the vaunted Indo-US deal, India today confronts an embarrassing situation: the nuclear power promise is fading globally before New Delhi has signed a single reactor contract as part of that deal. To save face, India, with one of the world’s oldest nuclear energy program, has embarked on a major expansion of domestically designed power reactors.

Given that the Indian nuclear plant construction time frame averages seven years, India’s decision to ramp up its nuclear power capacity may contribute little to meeting its goal of making 24-hour electricity available to all villages and towns by 2022. But the decision will yield major economic dividends, including boosting domestic industry and creating tens of thousands of jobs. By providing $11 billion worth of likely manufacturing orders to Indian industry, the decision will help to transform the domestic nuclear industry.

In this light, the travails of the Indo-US deal may be a blessing in disguise for India. more>


Modinomics rings hollow

Look beneath government hype, and signs of deep economic distress are evident
By Kapil Sibal – This government is in denial.

It believes that black economy has been given a fatal blow. At 7.1% India continues to be the fastest growing economy in the world. Spurt in public investment has created jobs. FDI flows are evidence of investors’ confidence in the growth story of India. Reforms have led to ease of doing business.

Let us critically examine each of these claims.

On November 8, when the prime minister announced demonetization of all 500 and 1,000 rupee notes freezing 86% of India’s economy. If this ill-thought decision was an attempt at eradicating unaccounted wealth then it failed miserably. Most cash is either invested in real estate, gold or is stashed abroad. Undisclosed cash in circulation represented only around 5% of unaccounted wealth.

Now that real estate is outside the GST net, cash will continue to be a factor in real estate transactions. What is alarming is that unaccounted cash entered the banking system and is slowly being withdrawn and reconverted into undisclosed cash.

Modi believes in seducing foreign investors in digitizing the economy, little realizing that most of India earns less than Rs 10,000 a month and seldom accesses digital platforms for bank transactions.

Record levels of Sensex, we all know, do not reflect the true state of the economy. With real estate giving no returns and interest rates down, the only option for investors is in equities. This is risky because once the bubble bursts investors will be badly hurt. more>