Inviting Harm to Deny Access: Are we Still Struggling With Aadhar?

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Events that happened over the last few days will define our path going forward. It started with the erstwhile founding CEO of UIDAI and the current TRAI Chairman, Mr. R S Sharma, challenging anyone to do any harm to him after he made his Aadhaar number public. Soon the social media was flooded with individuals who claimed to have access to various private information about him while Mr. Sharma and some others were quick to point out that no ‘harm’ has been done and all that the hackers managed to extract were already available online. In other words, Aadhaar played no role in extracting the personal details by the hackers. It  got murkier when some ‘hackers’ started to issue threats to his family members and the UIDAI finally stepped in to stop this by pointing it out that sharing any individuals’ Aadhaar number publicly is illegal! The nation was once again divided between those for and those against this act by Mr Sharma. The act could be classified anywhere from being immature to being outright criminal as pointed out by the UIDAI. The motive behind such a challenge is perplexing-’if you can’t (or don’t) harm me then Aadhaar is safe, if you try to, then the law will get you’! It did make very disturbing interpretation of data privacy and security by the ex CEO of UIDAI and the current TRAI. More importantly it started to raise the question again-how much should be within the ambit of Aadhaar? That was the lead until the next happened.

On July 30, 2018, The second and final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was presented. Three years in the making, the exercise  monitored closely by the Supreme Court, to determine the rightful, legal citizen of Assam, declared 2,89,83,677 out of 3,29,91,384 applicants as eligible for citizenship. The numbers not included amount to 40,07,707. For now, their fate hangs in the balance. Some do go on to claim that many individuals find their names missing in spite of having their names in the Aadhaar list-a claim that looks much unsubstantiated as Assam is one of the three States who haven’t implemented Aadhaar for its citizens. Indeed, they were waiting for the NRC exercise to be over before implementing Aadhaar.

Both the two incidents help us understand two important things.  One, what Aadhaar could have achieved and two, how with each day, we are moving away from that.

As the drama unfolded, I was remembering a column published some time back as to how a novel idea like Aadhaar was being trivialized and losing its sheen by trying to make it all encompassing.[1]To emphasis, the points made there, the Aadhaar number is as useless or as useful as any other IDs we possess. The power of Aadhaar is its’ individual initiated authentication. With biometric authentication, any transaction initiated by Aadhaar establishes that the entity in the data base was present there and had indeed initiated the transaction. So Aadhaar is more for authenticity of a transaction than the authenticity of the person himself! It was a bit discomforting to know that the ex CEO of Aadhaar didn’t view it that way. Getting to know ones’ Aadhaar number will at the best make it easy for the hacker to access all the information that is linked to that number. In order to do ‘harm’, the person has to breach the security of those instruments. Hence, the old question resurfaces again, why would the Government insist on linking everything and the sundry to Aadhaar? Was this why Aadhaar was designed?

Let us now look at Assam. There are two issues at play here. One, the obvious concern regarding too many claimants for too few resources. For a country, that is still struggling on most social welfare parameters, allowing illegal immigrants on the scarce resources are indeed matters of concern. Thus, there is a strong argument on one side to deny illegal immigrants access to subsidized public resources. The argument on the other side is humanitarian. For most who has sought immigration here, did so because their plight back home must have been far worse. Thus, deporting them back does present a moral and ethical dilemma. While some experts quote, this is not a signal an aspiring super power should give, others argue that  this is the strongest credible signal a country can give to keep away future  illegal immigrants! Both arguments have strong merit to summarily dismiss. However, Aadhaar, the way it was meant to be, could have solved part of the problem.

The strength of Aadhaar is primarily to eliminate ‘bogus’ transactions  that puts pressure on the scarce resources and leads to leakages. This would mean, any individual who should not have access to scarce resources can be denied access if all transactions related to that scarce resources are linked with Aadhaar. Isn’t this the main argument against the illegal immigrants? We do not need to ‘deport’ individuals, just limit  them the right to scarce resources.  This was originally why Aadhaar was designed, to ensure minimizing leakages regarding scarce resources of the Government. However, linking Aadhaar to all transactions and then challenging the world to do me harm shows a degree of confusion. By the original design, the maximum harm one should be able to inflict on me after getting my Aadhaar details should have been limited to denying me subsidized Government services, however, what appears today is that too much is at stake if my Aadhaar number reaches the wrong hands! We can only hope such issues are addressed well.

Bappaditya Mukhopadhyaya and Awadhesh Kumar Jha

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