Hindustan Times (Jalandhar)

Aad­haar is an evolv­ing en­deav­our

Along with in­tro­duc­ing new fea­tures, the sys­tem can also man­age their tran­si­tion at scale

- NANDAN NILEKANI Nandan Nilekani is for­mer chair­man of the Unique Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Au­thor­ity of In­dia and is cur­rently chair­man of In­fosys Ltd. This is the sec­ond in a series of by­in­vi­ta­tion opin­ion pieces on Aad­haar The views ex­pressed are per­sonal

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Econ­o­mists call this maxim a ‘trade-off’. You are al­ways bal­anc­ing be­tween op­pos­ing forces, hav­ing it all is not an op­tion. In the late 1800s, you could ei­ther take a car­riage and ride slowly but com­fort­ably or ride faster, but solo (and un­com­fort­ably), on horse­back. That was the case, un­til it changed in 1912, thanks to Henry Ford. You could now travel both com­fort­ably and fast. This is why new tech­nol­ogy has al­ways been lauded in so­ci­ety, be­cause it changes the na­ture of these trade-offs en­tirely.

As the us­age of Aad­haar grows, there has been con­cern from some about the ‘link­ing’ of Aad­haar to var­i­ous ser­vices. The con­cern was that a unique iden­ti­fier such as Aad­haar be­ing seeded in mul­ti­ple data­bases opens up the pos­si­bil­ity of deep pro­fil­ing and track­ing. Im­ages of ‘1984’ and the birth of a ‘panop­ti­con’ have been con­jured up. These fears are over-hyped and base­less.

For a mo­ment, con­sider an­other unique iden­ti­fier, your mo­bile num­ber. A typ­i­cal ur­ban, young Air­tel user, has prob­a­bly ‘linked’ her mo­bile num­ber to Ola for book­ing cabs, Zo­mato for or­der­ing food and What­sApp for mes­sag­ing. Yet, one can­not say that by do­ing so, Air­tel knows where she goes, what she eats or whom she talks to. This is be­cause ‘link­ing’ is a one-way process. Ola knows your Air­tel num­ber, but Air­tel doesn’t get data from Ola. The same is the case with Aad­haar. UIDAI doesn’t know where you’ve linked your Aad­haar, and why.

Even then, in the rare case, if Ola, Zo­mato and What­sApp were to col­lude and share your data, they could ‘link’ the data us­ing your mo­bile num­ber. With cur­rent tech­nol­ogy, you could get mul­ti­ple sim cards and hand­sets for sum­mon­ing a cab, or­der­ing food or send­ing a mes­sage but that is im­prac­ti­cal.

The an­swer to this trade-off is to­keni­sa­tion tech­nol­ogy.

Ba­si­cally, to­keni­sa­tion in our ex­am­ple would mean a dif­fer­ent mo­bile num­ber is au­to­mat­i­cally as­signed for ev­ery Zo­mato, Ola and What­sApp you link to. More­over, you can cre­ate your own vir­tual mo­bile num­ber if you want. UIDAI had orig­i­nally con­sid­ered to­keni­sa­tion in the early days of Aad­haar in 2010, but it was an idea then ahead of its time.

Now that to­keni­sa­tion has been an­nounced, it has changed the na­ture of the trade-off it­self, in­creas­ing pri­vacy and se­cu­rity, with­out com­pro­mis­ing us­abil­ity. There are three new fea­tures which have been launched.

First, the new lim­ited eKYC will not give away your Aad­haar num­ber, un­less the law re­quires it. Sec­ond, ev­ery or­gan­i­sa­tion us­ing Aad­haar will nec­es­sar­ily get a to­ken, i.e. an ID num­ber, that no one else in the world will have. This to­ken can­not be used to re­veal your Aad­haar num­ber, nor can two col­lud­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions ‘link’ your records. This is a guar­an­teed to­keni­sa­tion on the back­end, with no ac­tion re­quired from the user. Your pri­vacy is pro­tected as a de­fault.

Third, if you’re still not sat­is­fied with the UIDAI’s to­keni­sa­tion, you can op­tion­ally gen­er­ate your own 16-digit Vir­tual ID. This Vir­tual ID is a pseudo-Aad­haar num­ber and will be us­able every­where an Aad­haar num­ber is. More im­por­tantly, UIDAI recog­nises that this ser­vice should be avail­able to all, so you do not need a lap­top or a smart­phone to get or re­place a Vir­tual ID.

In fact, this sort of in­clu­sion by de­sign has been a fea­ture of Aad­haar from the very be­gin­ning. Even the home­less could get an Aad­haar, with­out a valid proof of ad­dress, by the in­tro­ducer sys­tem. The UIDAI team knew that the in­tro­ducer sys­tem has chal­lenges, but the trade-off was to ex­clude peo­ple from get­ting an Aad­haar be­cause of a lack of doc­u­men­ta­tion. I’m glad the UIDAI chose in­clu­siv­ity. The re­cent move to en­able fa­cial recog­ni­tion as an­other way of Aad­haar au­then­ti­ca­tion is one more step in the in­ter­est of in­clu­siv­ity.

I’m glad that news headlines are ded­i­cated to im­por­tant tech­no­log­i­cal chal­lenges such as pro­tect­ing user pri­vacy, but un­for­tu­nately, the qual­ity of the de­bate leaves a lot to be de­sired. While Aad­haar took cen­tre stage in the de­bate, it was a dis­trac­tion from all the other real is­sues that are detri­men­tal to an In­dian’s pri­vacy. From my ex­am­ple above on link­ing, you may have re­alised that your mo­bile num­ber cre­ates the same pri­vacy is­sues as Aad­haar did be­fore to­keni­sa­tion. In fact, a re­cent ar­ti­cle in The New York Times quoted an FBI agent say­ing that a mo­bile num­ber is more dan­ger­ous than a so­cial se­cu­rity num­ber be­cause it is in 10x more data­bases, it is the ex­act same for ev­ery ser­vice, it is con­nected to a de­vice that is al­ways on you, and can even track your lo­ca­tion.

What de­lights me the most though is that the Aad­haar ar­chi­tec­ture is flex­i­ble, fast, con­stantly in­no­vat­ing. It is not just able to in­tro­duce new fea­tures, but also man­age their tran­si­tion at scale. Sys­tems are not born through Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion, they get there through con­stant im­prove­ments. We should ap­plaud the UIDAI for be­ing re­spon­sive to the con­cerns of the pub­lic. We need to recog­nise that pro­vid­ing a unique, se­cure iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, with in­stant au­then­ti­ca­tion any­where, to 1.3 bil­lion In­di­ans is an evolv­ing en­deav­our. What In­dia has ac­com­plished in less than nine years is noth­ing short of a revo­lu­tion!

 ??  ?? The fears that Aad­haar will lead to deep pro­fil­ing and track­ing are base­less
The fears that Aad­haar will lead to deep pro­fil­ing and track­ing are base­less
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