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A rant on Aadhaar

Kiran Jonnalagadda
Dec 6, 2016 · 18 min read

The good

First, I know many of the people behind Aadhaar. I’ve spoken to them over many years on Aadhaar and on various other things. I’ve known some of them for way longer than Aadhaar existed. I do not doubt their sincerity or integrity in their stated mission, nor do I doubt their technical competence. Unlike many of Aadhaar’s detractors, I do not believe these people intend to create a surveillance apparatus. They are as privacy conscious as any of us, if not more, and it’s come through in multiple conversations. They have been kind enough to host me for an in-person technical deep-dive and ask-anything session, speaking frankly about their intentions and fears. However, they are actors in a mere sub-plot in a larger narrative, a narrative that they are not the authors of. I have no doubt they are aware of this, and the problems of the larger narrative bother them as much as they bother us, even if they are not free to admit this in public.

The background

Second—and this is the long part—my own work experiences. In 2006 I joined a firm named Comat (now defunct), hoping to learn something about writing software for Indian users, users I could actually meet and observe the difference my code made to their lives. That year Comat bagged two major government contracts. One, to computerise the Public Distribution System (PDS aka ration cards) for the Food and Civil Supplies department in Karnataka, and two, to deploy a network of 800 computer “telecentres” across Karnataka (known as “common service centres” today), a rural analogue to the already-running Bangalore One urban centres. I spent a few months working on the first project before finding myself appointed the technical head of the second.

Scaling up

You can see that this doesn’t scale. The Secretary couldn’t possibly do this all the time. There was no legal authority to punish without due process. The Revenue Department’s next project, Rural Digital Services, which aimed to offer many more services over a computer interface, came up with an ingenious solution. All service requests would be processed strictly in First In First Out order. If an official dithered on processing a file, they couldn’t move on to the next. (The technical implementation of this FIFO queue caused us many months of nightmares, but that is another story.)

Telecentres

This section is a long tangent, but it’s a relevant insight, so bear with me.

Solving at scale

UIDAI skirted around the waterfall design pattern of government tenders by having a core team of volunteers. The rules only apply when money is involved. UIDAI has shown considerable tact with avoiding various government project pitfalls. I have to grudgingly admit respect for this cleverness, especially when it comes across as circumvention of due process. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves again.

Aadhaar

I left Comat at the end of 2008, burnt-out and jaded. Sometime in the intervening years, the company’s co-founder and President (later CEO) met Nandan Nilekani on a flight and told him what we were up to. I first heard of UIDAI and their plans in 2009. “But…” I said, thinking back to all the things we had tripped over. “Smarter people than you are working on this,” I was told (it really was as blunt as that). My concerns weren’t a matter.

  • UIDAI is funded by the savings from eliminating fraud across departments. It didn’t require an additional budget and was therefore easy for the government to approve. Notice that this has been a consistent message across years.
  • To avoid the waterfall trap of a government contract, it was built by volunteers, with contractors coming in only after the foundation had been laid.
  • Both fingerprint and iris scans are used. All ten fingers are scanned. Backup options are included (in theory) when biometrics don’t work.
  • To avoid vendor lock-in, UIDAI put together a consortium of vendors agreeing to a common standard, using the sheer size of the database as leverage to get vendors to open up. This also means getting to that large size is crucial, explaining their hunger for enrolment.
  • The government departments funding this will only realise their savings if 100% of their enrolments are via Aadhaar. Any beneficiary who is enrolled twice, once via Aadhaar and once without, will remain undetected as a dupe. This explains their drive to make Aadhaar mandatory. This isn’t a government conspiracy or a surveillance state, it’s plain economics.
  • Also to avoid vendor lock-in, biometric matching software from multiple vendors is run on the entire database for every new enrolment, with vendors paid for performance.
  • Most of this software is licensed rather than custom-built, with the size of the database used as negotiating leverage. Many people are upset that a government-funded project is using proprietary software. I’m rather thankful it’s not custom-built software, having seen the horrors of that in other government projects.
  1. The “Aadhaar card” is at best a receipt acknowledging a user’s enrolment. It is easily faked—far more easily than a plastic-backed PAN card or driving license—and should not be trusted as an identity card without corresponding digital verification (based on biometrics or demographic data), and yet the Aadhaar card is widely accepted as id proof thanks to the government’s own push. The lack of verification allows petty officials to scam the system, as has been happening in the ongoing demonetization exercise. UIDAI should have frowned on the practice of using paper cards as id, but instead merely preaches being careful.
  1. Many countries get suspicious if you’ve been to particular other countries. Middle Eastern countries won’t let you in if you’ve been to Israel. The US adds extra scrutiny if you’ve been to a place like Iran. By keeping separate passports, he can keep his travels private from nosy immigration officials.

Kaarana

Kaarana (ಕಾರಣ; कारण; reason) is a collection of independent…

Kiran Jonnalagadda

Written by

Tech and society enthusiast. I helped make @hasgeek, @internetfreedom, @kaarana_, @SpeakForMe, @hasjob, and @KilterClub.

Kaarana

Kaarana

Kaarana (ಕಾರಣ; कारण; reason) is a collection of independent critiques of Aadhaar and digital India

Kiran Jonnalagadda

Written by

Tech and society enthusiast. I helped make @hasgeek, @internetfreedom, @kaarana_, @SpeakForMe, @hasjob, and @KilterClub.

Kaarana

Kaarana

Kaarana (ಕಾರಣ; कारण; reason) is a collection of independent critiques of Aadhaar and digital India

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