National Identity Schemes

April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

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.



March 15, 2011 § 6 Comments

Travelling is always a good reminder of everything that you don’t know about the world, and everything that you take for granted, particularly if you go to a place with quite a different language or culture. In Perth, I don’t think twice about planning a trip across the city on public transport, ordering food, looking up directions online, reading the body language of people around me. In Bangalore, the background information required to do all of these things becomes much clearer to me.

I try to order food, and don’t know: is it table service? Do I pay now, or later? Which things on the menu will I like? Is it polite to smile at the waiter, or make small talk with the cashier?

I walk past the bus stand, and all of the information is in a script I can’t read.

I use Google Maps to try to find my way around, and not only can’t find my current location, but also don’t know the language of the urban geography: how long will it take me to walk a block? Will I see that turnoff, if I walk past it?

When I walk around, people stare at me, and I don’t know if they’re being friendly or impolite or just curious. When I watch my Indian friend buy something at a shop, the discussion seems angry to me, although I know it isn’t – there’s just a different code to body language, and the Australian expectation that people will serve you with a smile (whether they’re happy or not) and “Have a nice day!” (whether they care or not) isn’t there.

At home, I’m highly literate. I can speak, read, and write in English. I can communicate effectively in social and academic settings, wearing different selves in different spaces. But here, I’m illiterate in so many ways: I can’t read the script, I can’t read body language, I can’t read the urban geography.

When I stumble on these illiteracies, I do it from a position of privilege. I can go online and ask for help, knowing that there’s a vast store of information in English. India’s colonial history means that many people speak English, and most signs are in English. I have the material resources to bypass difficulties: I can go to a restaurant that caters for foreigners, or hire an auto if buses are too complicated.

I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be trying to navigate these illiteracies from a marginalised position. To be a new immigrant in Perth, for example, who doesn’t speak English and doesn’t have a privileged economic position. Moving around the city, making friends, even everyday tasks like buying food, must be so very hard, so very tiring. And if you’re not literate in a language that’s well-represented online, you can’t just ask for help on Twitter or look up a guide on Wikipedia.

The group I’m working with here, Janastu, is starting some interesting projects related to Web accessibility for people who don’t read English. I’m also getting a chance to find out about other interesting projects to connect people online – today I had a look at the CGNet Swara blog, which lets people from the Central Gondwana region of India make blog posts by phone. I’m really curious to see how these projects work, and the ways in which they might transform some of the illiteracies that affect access to the Web.

And, while I’m doing it, I can work on becoming literate in new ways myself.

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