An argument without Aadhaar

Traditional understanding of privacy may not suffice in an age of digital identities. Supporters and opponents of UIDAI are missing the point

Written by Subhashis Banerjee | Updated: July 5, 2017 12:05 am
aadhaar, aadhaar card, aadhaar security issue, aadhaar mandatory, aadhaar news, indian express news The mandated use of Aadhaar for IT is egalitarian, and any perceived indignity of fingerprinting is due to prejudice.

In the Aadhaar debate, strident dogmatic positions have far outnumbered credible peer-reviewed analyses, and the proponents and opponents have mostly talked past each other. There have been alarming reports of exclusion and disruption in social welfare but it is still unclear whether they are due to fixable teething troubles, careless deployment or something more fundamental, and what proportion is affected. The opponents too have been unable to make precise how exactly Aadhaar violates privacy, nor have the UIDAI and ministerial proclamations declaring Aadhaar to be perfectly safe engendered confidence.

Moreover, trivial and easily fixable examples of privacy breaches have been turned into big issues. Whatever were the initial plans, the government clearly wants to use the unique identification of Aadhaar to enforce compliance in a variety of schemes by avoiding duplicates. The opponents want Aadhaar to be voluntary and if that makes it a lame duck instrument, so be it. And the potential benefits of Aadhaar beyond de-duplication, for example in analytics, have not even been discussed much.

The disagreement has inevitably shifted to the courts. However, in the recent Aadhaar-PAN linkage case, several arguments from both sides were specious and not well analysed. No expert was examined and the judgement — though perhaps fair under the circumstances — did not inspire confidence in the process.

For example, the petitioner’s argument on legislative competence — that the linkage cannot be made mandatory in the IT Act without first removing the contradiction from the original Aadhaar Act — appeared to be compelling. Yet the court dismissed it. However, even if the court had upheld it, the objection was more on procedural grounds and not fundamental in nature, and at best the government would have been forced to go back and amend the original act.

The petitioner’s arguments under Article 14, that the mandate discriminates between different classes of taxpayers, must have sounded tenuous even to the petitioners and were summarily rejected. The argument that PAN cancellation violates the right to practice any profession was accepted, but so were the state’s arguments on the need for de-duplication. The court also accepted, without question or calling for any analysis, the state’s assertion that biometric de-duplication is perfect. Partial relief was given to non-Aadhaar holders on the ground that cancellation of PAN will cause hardship.

The petitioners had put forth another set of problematic arguments based on dignity and bodily autonomy, on the state’s right of eminent domain over the human body and on informational self-determination. The court deferred them for consideration by a larger bench, along with all issues related to privacy. The mandated use of Aadhaar for IT is egalitarian, and any perceived indignity of fingerprinting is due to prejudice. Moreover, fingerprints and iris scans (both can be contact-less) are fundamentally no different from facial photographs; they are images and not parts of one’s body. They can be used for matching and de-duplication either manually or automatically. They differ only in efficacy and not in principle. Unfortunately, the response from the state — claiming that the state indeed has a right over the human body — was irrelevant and disproportionate.

The question then is: Can the state insist on an identification mechanism? If so, under what circumstances? What are the limits of informational self-determination? Note that the state has already assumed this right, many years back without much protest, by making PAN cards with photographs mandatory for tax returns. The purpose even then was de-duplication, only the methods and their efficacy were different.

So, the main issue is privacy, which the court has been deferring, and little has been said on it to enable an informed decision. On the one hand, the state’s position that Aadhaar is safe because UIDAI stores only minimal data required for biometric matching and demographic details, is untenable. The government and UIDAI cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility of protecting users from privacy breaches through possible correlation attacks on linked databases. Further, the possibilities of insider attacks also need to be considered.

On the other hand, the opponent’s claim — that collecting biometric information and storing them in a central database and linking multiple databases through the Aadhaar number fundamentally violates privacy — is also without any careful evaluation of a precise threat model. For example, PAN cards are already linked to bank accounts, ITR and major purchases. How does linking Aadhaar increase the possibilities for correlation attacks? Why is making the Aadhaar number public more dangerous than making PAN public? Biometric and demographic details are publicly available anyway, and anybody determined enough can obtain these from touched objects and using a powerful camera even without the victim’s cooperation.

Clearly, it will be unsafe to use biometrics for authentication, to access bank accounts for example, but what about only for identity verification and de-duplication? Surely we need to exhaustively enumerate the possible ways in which privacy may be compromised and model an attack surface? Only then can the questions related to privacy protection, either through technical or legal means, even be asked. The assertion that privacy protection is impossible with biometrics and a global ID is far from established.

It may not be enough to apply a traditional understanding of privacy to the new scenarios presented by digital identity and the internet. The need of the hour is for our institutions to wake up and carry out conservative, detailed and rigorous analysis of all issues involved — social, economic, technical and legal. Till then, it will be best to go slow with Aadhaar, engage, analyse, correct, and ensure that there are no hardships.

The writer is professor, department of computer science and engineering, IIT Delhi

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  1. S
    Sankaran Krishnan
    Jul 6, 2017 at 1:22 pm
    So far the GOvt. of India states that each and everything the citizens of India need to link Aadhaar but my simple query is WHY not the same is linked for the voting and once voter list and Aadhaar is linked no duplication can be done and no Political party can cast their votes and why EC and GOI are hesitant to bring in the same as compulsory for voting is the query ????
    1. #
      Jul 13, 2017 at 11:39 am
      Deactivate this genius's aadhaar temporarily at election day.
    2. #
      Jul 6, 2017 at 11:00 am
      25 lakh families in Rajasthan are unable to withdraw ration even after seeding #AADHAARFAIL with their ration card. 2. #AADHAAR authentication does not work for half billion Indians. 3. AADHAAR authentication does not work even after updating bio-metrics and waiting for 90 days 4. AADHAAR bio-metrics can be stolen, printed and used for #AADHAAR pay 5. #AADHAAR does not work for NRIs, people outside India 6. AADHAR can not be generated if a person's fingerprint matches with someone else's with 60 percentage probability. 7. Rogue government can deactivate your #AADHAAR blocking your gas, electricity, mobile, bank account 8. AADHAAR works for millions of illegals staying in India 9. AADHAAR is blocking subsidies for millions of legitimate people 10. Take 10 lakh insurance for each #AADHAAR failure case or delete aadhaar bio-metrics from aadhaar database, archive and deactivate #AADHAAR. Jai Hind
      1. J
        Joseph Alex
        Jul 5, 2017 at 11:56 pm
        Hi Professor, The article points to relevant fixes and debates that ought to be taken care of. But there are some points you highly underrated. 1. Qouting your article: " How does linking Aadhaar increase the possibilities for correlation attacks? Biometric and demographic details are publicly available anyway, and anybody determined enough can obtain these from touched objects and using a powerful camera even without the victim’s cooperation." Usually very people tries to convey technical competence they miss out some serious practical scenarios here it is:Availing data(both finger print and iris) through an available ready to use data is quite different from a data that should be acquired through hi fi technologies.A lot of gap between victimization and robbery.... 2.As now data is new currency the private data can be used by many marketing companies for their benefits.and it's easy to get it via a loosely secured aadhar data(if so) than going after every person for a touched glass
        1. P
          Jul 5, 2017 at 8:22 pm
          The last statement is unwarranted- [[Till then, it will be best to go slow with Aadhaar, engage, analyse, correct, and ensure that there are no hardships.]] The author should have at least understood that there is nothing in Aadhar that makes anything more vulnerable than it already is, however it does make things tiny bit better and for any teething issues etc you do not slow down adoption of a useful system but remove those hurdles/issues. In India you have to fight even for good things to be adopted.
          1. #
            Jul 14, 2017 at 10:06 am
            Stop fooling billion Indians, now anyone can force fingeprint you, steal your fingerprints, print in transparency sheet and use for aadhaar pay, clone your sim,change your password using OTP, Jai Hind.
          2. S
            Seshubabu Kilambi
            Jul 5, 2017 at 7:45 pm
            Mere application of technology without considering social and privacy values leads to violation of fundamental right
            1. D
              Jul 5, 2017 at 4:44 pm
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              1. P
                Phaneendra Vinnakota
                Jul 5, 2017 at 4:15 pm
                Accidental leakage of biometric data is a real problem, and deliberate pilferage of that data is an even bigger threat. Using Aadhaar for upfront validation and access to goods is coercive and and de-humanizes the citizens. The real purpose of Aadhaar originally was and should be de-duplication in a backoffice setting. And that should be the benchmark for judging its efficacy or for justifying its indispensability. The government seems to argue in an arrogant manner, which is quite unpalatable. Their brute majority in the Lok Sabha blinds them to the need for a deliberative approach. There has to be a reasoned debate and the honorable Supreme Court should ensure that debate.
                1. M
                  Jul 5, 2017 at 3:52 pm
                  In the age where mega US corporations such as Facebook, Google and Twitter are blatantly violating user's privacy and selling their personal data to the highest bidder such as adverti t companies and political parties, the citizens of India are debating UIDAI privacy! Indians need to get their priorities right.
                  1. E
                    Jul 6, 2017 at 11:49 am
                    All those you mentioned are voluntary, aadhaar is not. You can opt out of joining facebook, delete twitter account, use another search engine but aadhaar is compulsory. You need to do your research right
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