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Various initiatives within the government are converging to transform India into a classic police state. Enabling this transformation is everyone’s darling, the UID project. The UID project is a triumph of marketing over reality. Marketed as a fundamental enabler for targeted delivery of government services, UID numbers will instead form the bedrock for pervasive state surveillance.
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) however, has repeatedly downplayed the use of UID numbers for surveillance and security functions by consistently omitting this topic in official communication through their website and press releases. Nevertheless the context and limited scope of the Authority reveal its real intent. While conceptually the project has been in discussion since the Vajpayee government (2002), renewed impetus came in the wake of Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008. The UIDAI was established in February 2009, less than three months of the attack. Despite the altruistic marketing, the Authority refuses responsibility for improved service delivery stating, “The UIDAI is only in the identity business. The responsibility of tracking beneficiaries and the governance of service delivery will continue to remain with the respective agencies”.
Concurrently with setting up the UIDAI, the Indian Parliament substantially amended the Information Technology Act 2000 in December 2008 to give the government power to tap all communications without a court order or a warrant. Section 69 of ITA 2008 states “[…] necessary or expedient to do in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence, it may […] direct any agency of the appropriate Government to intercept, monitor or decrypt or cause to be intercepted or monitored or decrypted any information transmitted received or stored through any computer resource.”
Against this legislative and infrastructural background, the government is setting up a national intelligence grid (NATGRID). The NATGRID under Raghu Raman (ex-CEO, Mahindra Special Services Group) will interlink 21 categories of databases (railway and air travel, Income Tax, phone calls, bank account details, credit card transactions, visa and immigration records, property records, driving licence) for real-time monitoring of all residents in the country. NATGRID is expected to be fully operation by May 2011 and will eventually use UID numbers for these inter-database linkages.
Simultaneously work has begun on the National Population Register (NPR) which will collect information such as name, sex, date of birth, current marital status, name of father, mother and spouse, educational level attained, nationality, occupation, activity pursued, present and permanent addresses along with individual biometrics. Chidamabaran has cautioned that due care needs to be taken to ensure that “illegal” residents in border districts (Bangladesh, Nepal) don’t worm their way into the NPR giving the census an ominous policing quality. The NPR will depend on UID for de-duplication.
UID numbers will also facilitate the advance of a neoliberal state. There’s trepidation amongst many in the civil society about data convergence using UID numbers, and its monetization for private profit. This is not just a remote possibility but part of the official intent. The government is licensing credit information companies (CICs) under the Credit Information Companies (Regulation) Act 2005 to develop consumers’ credit profiles based on their transaction history from banks, NBFCs, telecoms and insurance companies. CICs will use UID numbers to collect and collate this information. This will inevitably lead to the type of predatory marketing seen in the United States (on the basis of social security numbers) and on the other side facilitate financial exclusion not inclusion of the poor. The Authority itself takes a predictably hands-off approach to data convergence stating, “Convergence of existing databases will need to be addressed and governed under a larger data protection regime applicable to the whole country and therefore this is a matter beyond the mandate of the UIDAI”.
While terror is a high-profile and charged topic in the country, mass surveillance cannot be justified in the name of improved security. There are other alternatives to track organized terror outfits without undertaking blanket real-time citizen monitoring. In fact there is substantial evidence that identity cards/numbers would not have prevented many recent terror attacks (e.g., Madrid bombings in 2004, 9/11, London underground attacks in 2005, Israel suicide bombings, Pakistan bombings). Moreover surveillance in India is not just limited to identifying alleged terrorists but any activity that can be twisted into “defense/sovereignty of India” or cognizable offence. The potential for misuse is tremendous (e.g., inconvenient activists, purported Maoists).
UID project’s basic premise of fundamentally improving delivery of welfare services does not withstand scrutiny. UID deployment will come at a prohibitively high cost and only address a small subset of leakages in marked contrast to other more effective governance mechanisms inexplicably snubbed by the government. At the same UID deployment will enable a mass surveillance police state leading to both invasion of individual privacy and curtailment of civil liberties. There is immediate need for transparency about the objectives of the project and a vigorous public debate on its need and relevance.
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