National Identity Schemes

Governments around the world have been becoming interested in the possibilities that RFID chips and digital information systems open up for creating nationwide databases that gather information on citizens (or residents) across a variety of fields: health, citizenship status, access to services, and so on. Australia’s version of this was the Access Card, which seems to have died a quiet death. Most of these schemes seem to be justified through four frames: streamlining access to government services, tracking citizenship status, controlling crime (particularly ID theft), and combatting terrorism.

India’s version of the scheme is the Universal ID card,  which is currently in the pilot phase. I went to an excellent session on national ID schemes on 21st March, organised by CIS and the Centre for Contemporary Studies. Dr. Ian Brown gave a talk on the UK’s National ID scheme, which was recently scrapped, looking at important questions about the scheme that also need to be raised in the Indian context. In particular, he focused on the government’s stated goals for the project, and the evidence for whether or not the National ID card would actually be an effective way of achieving those goals.

In the case of the UK scheme, even the conservative side of politics was unconvinced that the scheme would be an effective (including cost-effective) way of controlling crime, terrorism, social security fraud, ID theft, or illegal immigration.

Prashant Iyengar’s talk on India’s UID reinforced the concerns that Brown raised about the mismatch between stated goals and evidence. For example, while the UID is being billed as a way to prevent fraud in the access to government services, there’s very little evidence that the biometric cards will actually combat the causes of fraud (which seem to mostly be related to the massive power inequalities between those collecting benefits and those responsible for providing them).

Iyenger also addressed four myths that have been used to justify the UID scheme:

1) Registration is voluntary: it is, but only nominally – people will be able to opt out, but only if they’re willing/able to forgo access to all government services and basic citizenship rights.

2) Privacy is guaranteed: given the number of different agencies and companies who will be involved in the scheme, India’s “very leaky information system” (as Iyengar put it), and the limited penalties for information leaks by service providers, this “guarantee” doesn’t seem worth much.

3) The scheme will collect minimal information: even the minimum specified information (including name, residence, date of birth, and fingerprints) add up. As well as this, registrars (those collecting information) will also have significant discretion to collect more information.

4) The UID cards will only allow service providers to authenticate users’ identities, and will not provide information: there is actually a provision in the scheme by which the UID Authority can allow data sharing through prior written consent. This consent is routinely requested during the UID sign-up process, and it seems that there is also no way to proceed through the process without giving consent.

Given these issues, as well as other concerns that many civil liberties groups have with national ID schemes, considerable opposition to the UID is emerging. I’m not sure how effective it will end up being, but I’m definitely interested in exploring the way in which the issue is being addressed by different researchers and activists here.

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