India, now the world’s laboratory for privacy issues

The launch in India of Aadhaar, the largest biometric identification system ever developed, which already includes 1.1 billion people out of the country’s 1.3 billion inhabitants, the implementation of which has mobilized a huge number of officials and contractors who go from town to town collecting the data of residents along the lines of a census, has made the country the largest laboratory in the world on privacy, or perhaps the possible elimination of it.

The system in use in India includes biometric data (fingerprint, iris, and facial biometry) and demographics, stores them in a centralized government database, and provides a unique twelve-digit identification number, the largest national identification number project in history, which is also linked to banking operations allowing fingerprint payment, part of a move toward eliminating cash, and direct control of the economy in a country with very low banking penetration and debit and credit card use, along with an illiteracy rate of more than 25%, and with many problems relating to identification. All this in the context of a country in which neither the fundamental rights nor the laws or the constitution make any mention of the right to privacy or the protection of its citizens’ data.

Aadhaar needs to be seen in the context of a platform structure. At the recent Netexplo forum Paris, I had the opportunity to talk to one of the people in charge of the deployment of Aadhaar through API. The plans are clear: demonetization as radical as possible and ending the problems of inadequate identity verification systems. As a result of these efforts, companies like Airbnb, Uber or Ola Cabs are now beginning to consider using the system as a way to ensure that the participants in a transaction are who they say they are, given the problems such as drivers who weren’t who they said they were, people with criminal records that had obtained falsified documents, etc. If the deployment continues as originally planned, India will become a completely transparent country, where an Aadhaar number will be necessary for almost any transaction, and in which all activity will be traceable through a huge system that verifies at every step our identity and our transactions based on our biometrics.

The radical and surprising demonetization of November 8, 2016, which eliminated the 500 and 1000 rupee bills within a few hours, estimated at around 80% of the money in circulation, generated protests and queues at ATMs, but flushed out black money and was a heavy blow to many criminal operations. Now the plan is to be completed through the integration of more and more activities and the transfer of cash to transactions that must be linked to the identity of the people through their corresponding number and fingerprint.

What effects will such radical movements have on the economy and the functioning of the country? The collapse of the country’s economy projected by the world’s major economists turned into 7% GDP growth, allowing the country to maintain its status as the world’s fastest-growing big economy. What happens when a government is determined to eliminate privacy? What does it mean in terms of giving up a right considered fundamental in the West? How many economies around the world will be watching the results of the Indian experiment?

UPDATE (Aug 28, 2017): India’s Supreme Court rules that privacy is a fundamental right for citizens. The ruling does not constitute a direct attack on Aadhaar, but may impact the diffusion of the program and, in particular, the possibility of making it’s adoption mandatory.

(En español, aquí)