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Sunday 9 October 2011

4 popular myths about the UID

Posted by Prashant. 
By now, there is already a lot of material in the public domain that is critical about the UID/Aadhar project (See for an exhaustive catalogue). Much of this material has criticized the UID for the ‘big brotherly’ techno-surveillance regime that it threatens to unleash, usually under the guise of delivering assured benefits to the marginal peasant. Many commentators have questioned the haste with which a project of this scale and complexity has sought to be pushed through. Some have expressed doubts on the feasibility – financial, technical or  logistical – of the scheme.
I do not intend to rehearse these arguments in this post. Instead, I pick four somewhat obscure, but troublesome assertions made about the UID and test their veracity against documents available on the UIDIA site itself. The purpose is to cut through all the equivocation behind the claims that UID officials have been making, and arrive at some minimal clarity on what the UID is (and isn’t).
1) Registration is voluntary!
How does one make sense of Nandan Nilenkani’s cryptic remark, “I wouldn’t call it compulsory. I would rather say that it will become ubiquitous”?
In a sense, this is true enough. Nowhere in the entire bulk of UID documentation will you encounter the express words “mandatory” or “compulsory”. Hence, proved!  But that isn’t to say, however, that there is any way you will be able to avoid getting registered.
Very rapidly, accessing basic services and your very status as a citizen will be conditional on your possessing an Aadhar number. This is owing to the complex operational structure that the UID Scheme adopts which leaves the task of enrollment entirely in the hands of third party ‘Registrars’ who include a host of Central and State social security and welfare departments (including the Ministry of Rural Development which administers the Rural employment guarantee scheme), banks and insurance companies. There is nothing in the Aadhar Scheme that forbids these Registrars from making access to their services conditional on one’s consent to UID registration. In practice, many of them have and will continue to make UID registration a preliminary formality before access is granted to their services. So your ‘freedom’ to resist UID registration will depend on your ability to forego your minimum guarantee of the right to employment, cooking gas, banking and insurance services, food rations etc.
And if miraculously you are able to subsist without these services, there is still one minor detail that is seldom mentioned in conversations about UID: without a UID number, you will not be counted as a citizen of India. This is owing to the fact that the Registrar General of India, the authority responsible for compiling the National Population Register of India under the Citizenship Act, also happens to be a ‘Registrar’ for the purposes of the UID. Which means thatone’s registration in the NPR will entail automatic enrollment in the UID. The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003 makes it mandatory for everyone to be enrolled in the National Population Register. So, paradoxically, although the Aadhar number does not confer citizenship, one cannot be a citizen anymore without owning an Aadhar number.
In other words, the UID scheme avoids the charge of being compulsory, by outsourcing its compulsion entirely.
2) The UID Scheme will only collect a minimal set of information
A frequently made assertion about the UID scheme is that the data collected will be limited to a standard set of information like one’s name, residence, date of birth, photo, all 10 finger prints and iris image. Once again, this is only a half truth. As mentioned previously, the entire process of enrollment is carried out through Registrars who have absolute freedom to expand the categories of information collected to include data that is entirely orthogonal to the purposes of the UID. This freedom is typically guaranteed by a clause in the MOUs which the UIDAI has signed with Registrars enabling them to collect additional data that “is required for their business or service”. Thus, for instance, in Himachal Pradesh, citizens are asked to provide additional details such as information about their ration cards, PAN cards, LPG connection and bank accounts[i]
To employ a telling epithet found in one of the UID documents, the ‘Registrarsown the process of enrollment’.
3)Privacy is guaranteed
Although the UIDAI makes repeated assertions regarding its intent to respect privacy and ensure data protection, the precise mechanism through which these objectives will be secured is extremely unclear.
·         To begin with, the entire responsibility for devising schemes for safeguarding information during the collection phase rests entirely on the Registrars. The UIDAI’s own responsibility for privacy begins only from the moment the information is transmitted to it by the Registrars – by which time the information has already passed through many hands including the Enrolling Agency, and the Intermediary who passes on information from the Registrar to the UIDAI.
·         Rather than setting out an explicit redressal mechanism and a liability regime for privacy violations, the UID’s documents stop at loosely describing the responsibility of the Registrars as a ‘fiduciary duty’ towards the resident/citizen’s information.  The Registrars are tasked with maintaining records of the data collected for a minimum period of six months. No maximum period is specified and Registrars are free to make what use of the data they see fit.
·         In addition, the Registrars are mandated to keep copies of all documents collected from the Resident either in physical or scanned copies “till the UIDAI finalizes its document storage agency.”[ii]
·         The ‘Data Protection and Security Guidelines’ which the UIDAI requires all Registrars to observe merely contains pious injunctions calling on them to observe care at all stages of data collection and to develop appropriate internal policies. There is mention of the desirability of external audits and periodic reporting mechanisms, but the details of these schemes are left to the individual Registrar to draw up.
·         Although the Draft National Identification Authority of India Bill penalizes the intentional disclosure or dissemination of identity information collected in the course of enrollment or authentication, this does not guard against accidental leaks and does not mandate the service providers to positively employ heightened security procedures. Prosecution of offences under the Act can only proceed with the sanction of the UID Authority, which further burdens the task of criminal enforcement in these cases and would make it difficult for individuals to obtain redress quickly. The total absence of a provision for civil remedies against Registrars makes it unlikely that they will take the task of protecting privacy seriously.
·         In other words, the individual’s right to privacy is only as strong as the weakest link in the elaborate chain of information collection, processing and storage.
4) The UIDAI will not disclose any information and will only authenticate information with Yes/No answers
This is another of the frequently misleading claims made by the UID Authority. Thus, for instance, in April, 2010, in response to a question in the course of an interview, Nandan Nilekani said “UID itself has very limited fields, it has only four or five fields — name, address, date of birth, sex and all that. But it also does not supply this data to anybody. .. the only authentication you can get from our system is a yes or no. So, you can’t query and say what’s this guys name or what’s his date of birth, you can’t get all that.”[iii]
This statement is, however belied by many of the UIDAI’s own documents.
·         The draft NIA Bill, for instance, permits the Authority to issue regulations on the sharing of “the information of aadhaar number holders, with their written consent, with such agencies engaged in delivery of public benefits and public services as the Authority may by order direct”. In practice, prior “written consent” for sharing is obtained from the resident as a matter of course at the time of enrollment itself, and it is impossible to obtain an Aadhar number without consenting to sharing by the UID Authority.[iv] In practice, in India, a large number of forms will be filled in by assistants and the written consent box will be ticked as a matter of course without the resident understanding the full implications of her “consent”.
·         The draft NIA Bill permits the authority to “make any disclosure of information (including identity information) made in the interests of national security in pursuance of a direction to that effect issued by an officer not below the rank of Joint Secretary or equivalent in the Central Government after obtaining approval of the Minister in charge”. There is nothing in the Act that requires that this information be made available on an individual basis – in other words, it is possible for the data to be shared en-masse with any agency “in the interests of national security”.
·         There is nothing preventing “Registrars” who carry out the actual data collection functions from sharing this information with anyone they choose. Thus, for instance, the Aadhar information collected during the exercise of compiling the National Population Register will can be shared in whichever manner the Registrar General of India chooses –irrespective of what the UIDAI does with that information.
So, while ordinarily, the UIDAI would not authenticate information other than giving Yes/No responses, there are mechanisms already in place that presume that all this information will be made available, on demand, to whichever agency that happens to be interested.

[i] 2011. UID project picks up pace. Indian Express. Available at: [Accessed January 22, 2011].
[ii] UIDAI – Document Storage Guidelines for Registrars Ver. 1.2, August 2010
[iii] 2010. To issue first set of UIDs by Feb 2011: Nilekani – CNBC-TV18 -.Money Control. Available at: [Accessed January 22, 2011].
[iv] For instance, a flowchart of the Resident Enrollment Process issued by the UID stipulates  “Record Resident’s consent for Information Sharing” as the tenth step in the enrollment process. Unless this step is followed, the enrollment process cannot proceed!

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