Iris Scans and Scams

Over a bil­lion peo­ple in In­dia gave bio­met­ric data to the gov­ern­ment for IDS, but what else have they sur­ren­dered?

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THE OMI­NOUS changes at Ryan Se­queira’s work­place be­gan in early 2015. First came the bio­met­ric ma­chines, two on ev­ery floor of the New Delhi of­fice where he worked as an ar­chi­tect for a gov­ern­ment think tank. Then, about a month later, they did away with sign-in sheets—in­stead, em­ploy­ees had to clock in and out on the new ma­chines by scan­ning their fin­ger­prints and key­ing in their Aad­haar num­bers.

This was all part of a rad­i­cally am­bi­tious plan set in mo­tion in 2010, when the Indian gov­ern­ment de­cided to en­roll its 1.3 bil­lion res­i­dents into a cen­tral data­base and is­sue unique iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­bers. Aad­haar, which means “foun­da­tion” in Hindi, was to form the back­bone of so­cial wel­fare pro­grams by en­sur­ing that ben­e­fi­cia­ries could be prop­erly iden­ti­fied, which in turn would help re­duce fraud­u­lent claims.

So Aad­haar was rolled out, and In­di­ans all across the coun­try headed to en­roll­ment cen­ters and had their bio­met­rics taken—a pho­to­graph, 10 fin­ger­prints and two iris scans—then waited for their free iden­tity cards to ar­rive in the mail. En­roll­ment con­tin­ues to­day, and the world’s largest bio­met­rics data­base is now nearly com­plete, with over 99 per­cent of Indian adults— nearly 1.16 bil­lion peo­ple—reg­is­tered as of July.

Seven years on, the 12-digit Aad­haar num­ber con­tin­ues to be used in so­cial wel­fare, but it has per­vaded many other ar­eas of Indian life— from bank­ing to baby bonuses, mort­gages to mar­riage li­censes. For gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees like Se­queira, Aad­haar now means hav­ing to log their hours us­ing bio­met­ric-based ma­chines. The ben­e­fits of a unique ID num­ber may seem plen­ti­ful, but there may be just as many risks.

When the new ma­chines ar­rived at his of­fice, “peo­ple didn’t know their num­bers,” Se­queira says. “So the company put up a large sheet next to the ma­chines with every­body’s name and Aad­haar num­ber to ‘help’ them.”

He re­calls, “That was stupid—i was re­ally ir­ri­tated at the cal­lous­ness with which they treated our data.”


The idea for Aad­haar was first floated in the early 2000s, un­der the premise that wel­fare sys­tems would be­come more ef­fi­cient (and save money) if res­i­dents had a unique per­sonal iden­ti­fier. At the time, the gov­ern­ment was hav­ing dif­fi­culty iden­ti­fy­ing who should right­fully re­ceive ra­tions of food, fer­til­izer, cook­ing gas and other ne­ces­si­ties. Peo­ple were si­phon­ing off ra­tions—over a quar­ter of all is­sued—by mak­ing fraud­u­lent claims. The root of the prob­lem, the gov­ern­ment said, was a lack of proper iden­ti­fi­ca­tion among its peo­ple. Less than half of all In­di­ans have a birth cer­tifi­cate, few pay taxes and even fewer have a driver’s li­cense or passport.

“There were two main driv­ers be­hind Aad­haar,” says Nan­dan Nilekani, who in 2009

helped set up the statu­tory board, the Unique Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Author­ity of In­dia (UIDAI), re­spon­si­ble for rolling out Aad­haar. “One driver was in­clu­sion, be­cause many peo­ple in In­dia didn’t have any form of an iden­tity, es­pe­cially poorer In­di­ans. The sec­ond was that in the last 15 years, the gov­ern­ment has been spend­ing bil­lions of dol­lars—at least $60 bil­lion to $80 bil­lion a year—on en­ti­tle­ments and ben­e­fits, but there was a lot of fraud and leak­age. There­fore, we needed to have a ro­bust, unique ID sys­tem to make sure the ben­e­fits went to the right per­son.”

Al­ready, says Nilekani, Aad­haar has saved the gov­ern­ment close to $7 bil­lion. Roughly $2.5 bil­lion of that came from plug­ging the leaky tap of cook­ing gas ben­e­fits. For a coun­try that this year be­came one of the world’s largest im­porters of liq­ue­fied petroleum gas—af­ter the gov­ern­ment be­gan of­fer­ing in 2016 free con­nec­tions to poor fam­i­lies to switch them from more pol­lut­ing biomass-based fu­els, like fire­wood and cow dung—that’s good news for In­dia and the planet.

But some say Nilekani grossly over­es­ti­mates the sav­ings. “It’s a lie—most of the de-du­pli­ca­tion that the gov­ern­ment claims has been dealt with with­out the use of Aad­haar,” says agri­cul­tural econ­o­mist R. Ra­maku­mar from Mum­bai’s Tata In­sti­tute of So­cial Sci­ences. List-based dedu­pli­ca­tion—get­ting of­fi­cials to “sit with the lo­cal data to iden­tify who came from the same ad­dress”—was re­ported to be 15 to 20 times more ef­fec­tive than Aad­haar-based de-du­pli­ca­tion, Ra­maku­mar says, cit­ing a 2016 study by the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment, a Canada-based re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Whether the fig­ures tell a tall tale or not, how­ever, doesn’t seem be a press­ing con­cern for those on the ground. In­stead, or­di­nary In­di­ans are more fo­cused on how Aad­haar has changed their lives. “I think it’s a good idea be­cause be­fore this, my two chil­dren and I had no iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, no passport, only a ra­tion card,” says Anita Pereira, a do­mes­tic helper from the city of Pune. “The Aad­haar card sup­ports so many things—if I want to do a passport, go to the bank, book a rail­way ticket.”

The Aad­haar card has al­lowed mil­lions to fi­nally be in­cluded into the for­mal econ­omy. They can now open a bank ac­count, bor­row money from the Re­serve Bank of In­dia (the coun­try’s largest lender), send and re­ceive re­mit­tances, and pur­chase SIM cards. It has also en­abled mo­bile pay­ments and other cash­less trans­ac­tions, cru­cial in light of last year’s


dis­as­trous de­mon­e­ti­za­tion drive, when the gov­ern­ment sud­denly re­moved 500 and 1,000 ru­pee ban­knotes from cir­cu­la­tion, or 86 per­cent of its cur­rency, leav­ing many in limbo. In Aad­haar’s few short years, fi­nan­cial in­clu­sion among Indian women rose by 24 per­cent, more than 270 mil­lion Aad­haar-linked bank ac­counts were opened, and mo­bile phone pen­e­tra­tion dou­bled to 79 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

Aad­haar has a “tremen­dous po­ten­tial to foster in­clu­sion by giv­ing all peo­ple, in­clud­ing the poor­est and most marginal­ized, an of­fi­cial iden­tity,” a United Na­tions re­port de­clared last year. This in­cludes women, eth­nic mi­nori­ties, the il­lit­er­ate and those in the lower castes—pop­u­la­tions that typ­i­cally live on the fringes of so­ci­ety in many parts of In­dia.

Hav­ing an iden­tity doc­u­ment that’s rec­og­nized through­out the coun­try is also a boon, given how many mil­lions criss­cross the vast sub­con­ti­nent ev­ery year—mostly to bustling me­trop­o­lises like Kolkata, Mum­bai and Delhi— for mar­riage or in search of work. One in ev­ery three In­di­ans, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 cen­sus, lives out­side his or her home­town.

Hav­ing Aad­haar to ver­ify iden­tity also en­sures that mi­grants don’t lose out on gov­ern­ment ben­e­fits that might have re­quired ra­tion cards de­pen­dent on a lo­cal ad­dress, or health care ac­cess “me­di­ated by fa­mil­iar and fa­mil­ial contacts, a form of old-fash­ioned bio­met­rics,” write Har­vard hu­man rights ex­pert Jac­que­line Bhabha and her doc­toral stu­dent Amiya Bha­tia in a 2017 pa­per pub­lished in the jour­nal Ox­ford De­vel­op­ment Stud­ies.

Even res­i­dents who are nonci­t­i­zens—5.2 mil­lion peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to 2015 fig­ures, mostly from neigh­bor­ing coun­tries Bangladesh and Pak­istan—can ap­ply for an Aad­haar num­ber. In­clud­ing im­mi­grants is an un­usual move, one that most other na­tional iden­tity schemes can’t boast of. “That’s huge when it comes to think­ing about in­clu­sion, mi­grant la­bor and that basic fun­da­men­tal right to iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and le­gal iden­tity,” Bha­tia says.


Aad­haar can break down bar­ri­ers, but it also cre­ates them. With­out their 12-digit iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber, school­child­ren can’t claim their free mid­day meal, new moth­ers don’t re­ceive their cash bonuses, farm­ers can’t ap­ply for crop in­surance ben­e­fits, and the dis­abled aren’t able to pur­chase dis­counted train tick­ets.

And Aad­haar isn’t just syn­ony­mous with poor In­di­ans seek­ing ben­e­fits any­more. The Hin­dus­tan Times, a lead­ing Indian news­pa­per, re­ported in April that for all 61 ser­vices where Aad­haar is manda­tory, only 10 are wel­fare schemes. In­di­ans now need their ID to file taxes, open an ac­count at ma­jor banks and get mo­bile phone con­nec­tions. Last July, the south­east­ern city of Tiru­pati, ac­claimed for its tem­ples, made Aad­haar com­pul­sory for book­ing one of the 750 tick­ets is­sued daily to devo­tees seek­ing to per­form the An­gapradak­shi­nam rit­ual—an an­cient rite where wor­ship­pers roll in wet cloth­ing on tem­ple floors to ex­press grat­i­tude and ask for bless­ings from the pre­sid­ing de­ity, Lord Venkateswara. The tem­ple min­ders do so to con­trol the crowds and to “make sure that the same per­son is not us­ing the fa­cil­ity re­peat­edly.”

The Ut­tar Pradesh gov­ern­ment in north In­dia made it com­pul­sory this June for those hailing an

am­bu­lance to pro­duce their Aad­haar card be­fore get­ting on board. If the pa­tients aren’t well enough to do so, their next of kin has to present the right doc­u­ments.

“Get­ting the num­ber is vol­un­tary,” says Nilekani, who left UIDAI in 2014 to be­come a con­gress­man. “But as more and more pro­grams re­quire you to have it, ef­fec­tively you have to get the num­ber.”

Still, the Supreme Court of In­dia de­clared in 2015 that “it is not manda­tory for a cit­i­zen to ob­tain an Aad­haar card.” To this day, cit­i­zens con­tinue to file pe­ti­tions with the court, com­plain­ing that Aad­haar in­fringes on their right to pri­vacy.

Others, how­ever, be­lieve some­thing more sin­is­ter un­der­lies Aad­haar’s grow­ing ubiq­uity: state sur­veil­lance. “It’s like boil­ing the frog slowly,” says Su­nil Abra­ham, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cen­tre for In­ter­net and So­ci­ety, a Ban­ga­lore-based think tank. “Ini­tially, they made it sound like it’s for the poor…. Then, slowly, it creeps in, and more and more mid­dle-class peo­ple and tax­pay­ers have to get the card. So you pre­tend you’re im­prov­ing gov­er­nance, but on the other hand, you keep in­creas­ing sur­veil­lance. It serves both agen­das.” Abra­ham re­sisted get­ting an Aad­haar num­ber, but he had to fold when the law changed in 2017, re­quir­ing all tax­pay­ers to have one.

Another big con­cern for Abra­ham is se­cu­rity for all that data. “Bio­met­rics are ir­rev­o­ca­ble,” he says. “Once they’re com­pro­mised, they can’t be re-se­cured. Once some­body has stolen your bio­met­rics, that’s the end of it.”

In­dia doesn’t have a pri­vacy law, nor does it have one that pro­tects all the bio­met­ric data col­lected. Although Nilekani says he fa­vors creating such laws, he in­sists Aad­haar is safe. With all bio­met­ric data en­crypted and stored off­line be­hind mul­ti­ple fire­walls, he says, “Aad­haar is well de­signed for pri­vacy.” Agen­cies and mer­chants seek­ing to use Aad­haar as an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and au­tho­riza­tion tool, whether it’s to dis­trib­ute ben­e­fits or en­able cash­less pay­ments, have to be li­censed. “It’s not a free-for-all, any­one-off-the-in­ter­net kind of thing,” Nilekani says. “It’s based on a very reg­u­lated and man­aged ecosys­tem.”

To that, Abra­ham says: So what? “I think it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore the data­base is breached— un­less you’re telling me my gov­ern­ment’s se­cu­rity ex­perts are better than Facebook’s.”

Al­ready, the names, bank ac­count de­tails and Aad­haar num­bers of more than 130 mil­lion peo­ple have been leaked from four gov­ern­ment web­sites and pub­lished on­line. Abra­ham’s Cen­tre for In­ter­net and So­ci­ety pub­lished a re­port in May blam­ing the leaks on UIDAI for not im­ple­ment­ing strin­gent reg­u­la­tions on third­party users re­gard­ing their use of Aad­haar data (for ex­am­ple, bar­ring the pub­li­ca­tion of pri­vate de­tails on­line). When you have a cen­tral­ized data­base like Aad­haar, Abra­ham warns, you “end up with a hon­ey­pot that all the ter­ror­ists, for­eign states and crim­i­nals will want to at­tack.”


Se­cu­rity isn’t the only gripe Abra­ham has about Aad­haar. “In band­width-starved In­dia, it’s just in­ap­pro­pri­ate tech­nol­ogy,” he says. Finger­print-scan­ning ma­chines that ver­ify a per­son’s iden­tity re­quire elec­tric­ity and an in­ter­net con­nec­tion to carry out cross-checks us­ing the data­base. But In­dia’s in­fra­struc­ture works against such dig­i­ti­za­tion—an es­ti­mated 240 mil­lion In­di­ans have no elec­tric­ity at all; power cuts are fre­quent, es­pe­cially in the hot­ter months; and the av­er­age in­ter­net speed ranks the low­est in Asia, at 4.1 megabits per sec­ond, or about a third of what the av­er­age Amer­i­can en­joys.

Then there’s the prob­lem of whether the tech­nol­ogy ac­tu­ally works. Finger­print au­then­ti­ca­tion fails 5 per­cent of the time, on av­er­age, but re­ports sug­gest that fig­ure can be as high as 36 per­cent in some parts of the coun­try. In many in­stances, it’s poor manual la­bor­ers who have prob­lems, be­cause re­lent­lessly gru­el­ing work can wear out fin­ger­prints.

Still, Aad­haar con­tin­ues to grow. The beast of a data­base is ex­pected to en­fold all Indian res­i­dents by the end of the year, and the reach of its tentacles ex­pands ever fur­ther to more pro­grams, schemes and ap­pli­ca­tions. Will this mas­sive beast re­main docile, bring­ing ben­e­fits to mil­lions, or ca­reer out of con­trol?

“When it comes to Aad­haar, I don’t think ev­ery­one trusts the gov­ern­ment to do what is right only,” Se­queira says. “Like the Latin say­ing goes, Quis cus­todiet ip­sos cus­todes— Who will watch the watch­men?”


GOT YOUR NUM­BER: Ghe­war Ram, right, 55, and his wife, Champa Devi, 54, dis­play their unique iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards out­side their hut in Ra­jasthan, In­dia, in Fe­bru­ary 2013. +

+ EYE ON YOU: A vil­lager per­forms an iris scan at an Aad­haar en­roll­ment cen­ter in Ra­jasthan, In­dia, in Fe­bru­ary 2013.

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