New Delhi - Fears about loss of privacy are being voiced as India gears up to launch an ambitious scheme to biometrically identify and number each of its 1.2 billion inhabitants.
In September, officials from the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), armed with fingerprinting machines, iris scanners and cameras hooked to laptops, will fan out across the towns and villages of southern Andhra Pradesh state in the first phase of the project whose aim is to give every Indian a lifelong Unique ID (UID) number.
"The UID is soft infrastructure, much like mobile telephony, important to connect individuals to the broader economy," explains Nandan Nilekani, chairman of the UIDAI and listed in 2009 by Time magazine as among the world's 100 most influential people.
Nilekani is a co-founder of the influential National Association of Software and Services Companies and, before this assignment, chief of Infosys Technologies, flagship of India's information technology (IT) sector.
According to Nilekani, the UID will most benefit India's poor who, because they lack identity documentation, are ignored by service providers.
"The UID number, with its 'anytime, anywhere' biometric authentication, addresses the problem of trust," argues Nilekani.
But a group of prominent civil society organisations are running a Campaign For No-UID, explaining that it is a "deeply undemocratic and expensive exercise" that is "fraught with unforeseen consequences."
Participants in the campaign include well-known human rights organisations such as the Alternative Law Forum, Citizen Action Forum, People's Union for Civil Liberties, Indian Social Action Forum, and the Centre for Internet and Society.
A meeting was organised by the campaigners in New Delhi on Aug. 25 where speakers ridiculed the idea of a 12-digit number, and said it is unlikely to rectify, for example, the massive corruption in the public distribution system that is supposed to provide food to poor families.
J.T. D'Souza, an IT expert, asserted at the meeting that the use of biometrics on such a massive scale has never been attempted before and is bound to be riddled with costly glitches.
Other speakers raised issues of security and the possibility of hackers getting at databases and passing on information to commercial outfits, intelligence agencies or even criminal gangs.
In talks and television interviews, Nilekani has maintained that the benefits of the UID project far outweigh its risks. "It's worth taking on the project and trying to mitigate the risks so that we get the outcomes we want," he told the CNN-IBN television channel in an interview.
But the possibility of religious profiling by state governments or misuse by caste lobbies is real. This is because the central government has decided to include caste as a category in the UID questionnaire to be filled out by applicants.
Because identity is already a potent issue and the trigger for frequent identity-related conflict – such as the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat that left 2,000 people dead – any exercise that enhances identification is fraught.
Usha Ramanathan, a prominent legal expert who is attached to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in the national capital, does not buy the UIDAI's assurances.
At the Aug. 25 meeting, Ramanthan said that while enrolling with the UIDAI may be voluntary, other agencies and service providers might require a UID number in order to transact business. Indeed, the UIDAI has already signed agreements with banks, state governments and hospital chains which will allow them to ask customers for UIDs.
Ramanathan said that, taken to its logical limit, the UID project will make it impossible, in a couple of years, for an ordinary citizen to undertake a simple task such as travelling within the country without a UID number.
The UIDAI will work with the National Population Register (NPR) which draws its powers from the Citizenship Rules of 2003 and provides for penalties if information is withheld.
And as a government website says: "Certain information collected under the NPR will be published in the local areas for public scrutiny and invitation of objections." Seeking to allay privacy fears, the website goes on to explain that this is merely "in the nature of the electoral roll or the telephone directory."
But things begin to look ominous when seen in the context of the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), the setting up of which home minister P. Chidambaram announced in February as part of his response to a major terrorist attack.
Chidambaram said NATGRID would tap into 21 sets of databases that will be networked to achieve "quick, seamless and secure access to desired information for intelligence and enforcement agencies."
He added that NATGRID will "identify those who must be watched, investigated, disabled and neutralised."
"Internationally only a few countries have provided national ID cards because of the unsettled debate on privacy and civil liberties," says Prof. R. Ramakumar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. He added that several countries have had to withdraw ID card schemes or drop biometric aspects because of public opposition.
Nilekani maintains that the main purpose of the UID project is to empower the vast numbers of excluded Indians. "For the poor this is a huge benefit because they have no identities, no birth certificates, degree certificates, driver's licences, passports or even addresses."