Friday, December 9, 2011

Time to wake up UID supporters

It is disheartening to see many of our leaders criticize the UID Project -- esp., on the grounds that have been reported so far. Misunderstanding of the scope and benefits of the project? Perhaps yes. Conflicting agendas? Perhaps a bigger yes.

What is even more surprising is that nearly no voices are being heard for UID. Are our leaders afraid of betting on a losing horse? What happened to enlightened self-interest, objectivity and national interest? Have we gone intellectually bankrupt, that populism and fears of vocal but ill-advised opposition will still our voices?

I have been a critic myself on some specific issues but I remain an ardent supporter of the concept, the thought-leadership behind it and most of the implementation choices that have been made.

1. Is NPR better than UID Project? 
No. Having seen both from close-quarters, I think of NPR's efforts as a poor copy-cat exercise and a one-upmanship game gone out of control.

Having given in to accommodate multi-stakeholder views, our leaders have a minimal decency requirement of not duplicating effort; that of not foolishly rejecting all prior Aadhaar enrollments.

2. Is Citizenship vs Resident a big deal?
Perhaps it is, for many. But the resident focus is consistent with the vision of Aadhar right from the beginning. I believe it is far more inclusive, humanitarian and enlightened to go after socio-economic upliftment, instead of citizenship.

3. Is UID ignoring homeland security?
No. It simply started with a different (and far better, IMHO) objective. It is perfectly possible to build homeland security on top of the UIDAI effort, with a relatively small "additional effort". There is absolutely no justification to scrap one and start the other from scratch.

4. Is UID Project expensive?
Yes, it is. The biometric device vendors have probably grown much richer since the project started. However, if anyone has *integrity* questions, let them come forth and say it openly. If not, treat it as the price you pay when you want to be the leader.

5. Other country exercises have failed.
So what? Are we afraid we can't do better? Can't we analyze why they didn't, and avoid those pitfalls? Or are we forever going to be mired in our inferiority complex? Never before have I seen such self-defeating reverse-racism!!

6. Is it invasive? Is people's privacy at risk?
Perhaps the people who say this never got to see how government databases are maintained currently. The UID project is much, much better designed for privacy and data security than any other I have seen so far. I think that no other projects including the NPR will come close to this any time soon.

All such objections are hypothetical, argumentative and superficial in nature.

7. Unreliable and untested technology
Relatively speaking, yes. Please see #4 and #5 above, if you really want to be objective.

Let me pause here. I hope that other sane voices will come forth and say the right thing.

Let us not allow rhetoric and narrow personal political gains derail something this important.


  1. To add one more datapoint to point 4 -

    The biometric costs are one of the lowest (if not the lowest) prices possible anywhere in the world. When the going rates elsewhere in the world is around 1-10 USD, UID project made the vendors agree to 2.75 INR, which is a bit rare in this field. (Source:

    Having said this,IMHO, it is not technology or costs that is affecting this project, but our inability to appreciate the cause and lack of a strong political will to do this right thing is more shocking and appalling.


  2. Have you actually seen the LSE report of the failure of the British experiment in this regard? Or even the recent Front line issue which raises many of these issues?

    It will be interesting to see a more nuanced counterpoint to the valid questions raised with regard to privacy safeguards.

  3. Yes, I am aware of some of the projects that have failed as well as the writings of Prof Ramakumar, among others. Much of what has been written has been rational and specific. No doubt, it is good to see educated debates and defense of any large project.

    My intent from this post is to counter the one-sided allegations and rhetoric that are a far cry from specific and constructive debate.

    Nuanced counterpoints: Yes, why not? :) It would be gratifying to see someone else beat me to it though. It would mean that others are speaking up too.

  4. Indian government has granted 3000 crore of rupees. But i would like to ask, Where it has been implemented. In a city like Hyderabad, We can find a kilometer long queue for getting registered for UID. When it is done with the registration, A date has been issued for fingerprints,iris and etc.. We can find empty rooms, rusty benches and filled with spider webs. When asked what had happened..??

    No body what exactly happened. People are getting waxed up for waiting issues such as in the case of UID.

    I think there should be any other solution to solve this issue. Moreover to say, this UID thing is not much more to the reach of people,Due to lack of awareness......

    Where there is a will, There's a way.. But no leader knows what exactly a "WILL"..! just busy in saving their wills. i.e., Assets...! Pathetic situation..!

  5. I am a very big supporter of this project but I have a doubt whether this will be properly executed knowing the fact how our politicians have started hindering the process.

    However, I have a big question/concern regarding the way we are trying to implement this project.

    Before beginning any big implementation, we need to do a fool proof POC and test out before rolling out to actual stream.

    So why can't we implement this project in a city as oppose to all the places and run through the issues, problems, benefits and enhancements before we roll this out to entire nation as it involves more money in billions of dollars.

  6. Let us review what is likely to happen. The concept of Aadhaar as a reliable verifiable ID will be shelved. NPR as National ID card using UIDAI's backend for uniqueness detection will go forward. NPR will collect biometric and personal data and eventually issue an National ID card. What do we as Indian residents get -- (a) Mandatory enrollment in NPR. Penalty if not enrolled (b) Personal data including biometric with the government under privacy rules less stricter than UIDAI (c) Exclusion for people without permanent address since they cant enroll in NPR (d) Excellent tool for police and others to harass people by requiring to produce ID card in most unusual circumstances.

    This is a "loose" for common person, "win" for bureaucracy. Interestingly civil society has helped bureaucracy win.

  7. I think that the whole UID programme (and most e-governance programmes)exists solely to benefit the industry/bureaucracy/politician nexus. The common man is not going to benefit, perhaps some subsidy related schemes may give some benefits, but what benefit will the middle class derive from it?

    Privacy: The laws are weak on this issue. Imagine a scenario where UID becomes the primary key in databases that are unofficially maintained (and as yet legally) by every tom, dick and harry. Soon your blood group, diseases, health history, financial history will become available to anyone. In extreme cases, you could be kidnapped for your kidneys, liver, corneas or whatever else can be harvested. DO NOT SCOFF. Kidney racket, children being kidnapped and mutilated/amputated by begging gangs/eunuchs are realities of India. Until privacy laws are strengthened, people should NOT get themselves registered for UID.

    Expensive/*Integrity*: You say Rs 2.75 as if that is all the expense. What about the cost of paper, printing, ad expense, and consultants such as yourself?

    Biometrics Iris and fingerprints: Why not dental records? What good are these records going to be for identifying a burnt corpse (such as in plane crash).

    Duplication: Will the possession of UID eliminate the need to carry PAN Card, ElectionID Card or BPL card?

    In the end only the IT firms, IT consultants, and a creamy layer of people with contacts in GOI will benefit from UID programme

  8. Vijay,
    UIDAI has enrolled over 140M in less than 15 months. Over ten percent is done and system is working with nearly 1M per day. There is no system issue. The cost per official record from inception until September 2011 is Rs 468.91 crores.

    NPR is being dishonest because their cost does not include (a) uniqueness detection. This is where the large IT cost lies (b) cost of issuing card. Their cost is only about data collection. NPR has been working on this project since 2004. Have we looked at their past expenditure and results? Does anyone know what happened to "coastal project" where they enrolled millions and issued no cards? Do people remember MNIC project of 2005 or 2006 where they issued less than 40,000 cards at cost of crores?

    In bureaucracy, it is better to be less transparent. UIDAI is being open including discussing their entire enrollment process, IT system and cost estimates. NPR is disclosed nothing. We dont know what their data protection method is. We dont know what data they will made public. We dont know whether they will share our data with other governmental agency.

  9. Dear Anonymous,
    Benefit to common man: Are you comfortable proving your identity by producing photo, PAN card (or equivalent) and utility bill over and over again? Are homeless and migrant workers who need public benefit scheme getting excluded because they have no documents? These and thousand other identity problems Aadhaar is supposed to solve by providing reliable verifiable ID.
    Aadhaar is one scheme that conforms to India's digital privacy law and has its additional privacy protection written in it. Have you looked at Indian's digital privacy law that was adopted in the last two years? It is pretty good.

    I will not argue about cost -- if we think we need reliable verifiable ID, we have to pay for it. It may be Rs. 50 per person. What NPR is going to provide is an ID card -- card itself will cost Rs. 50 if not more. So we all are paying Rs 50+ under the name of national security.

    Biometric: Any ID is worthless if it can not provide uniqueness. In the western countries it is a birth record that is basis for every other ID. In India, we have no reliable paper proof. So we need an alternate. We need to collect "minimum" biometric to achieve this uniqueness and achieve minimum intrusiveness. face Photo, finger print and iris photo are the minimum one needs. I could go into the math to show why. But trust me, on it. I know this stuff.

    Duplication: What is needed in India is one base unique ID. All other ID are always based on this base ID. Every application will need their own card. In the Western world, the base is birth certificate. Driver's license, credit card, social security number, passport, library card, etc are still needed but they dont have to worry about uniqueness. So answer to your question of need for PAN card and Driver's license. You will still need them but each will be more reliable because they will be truly unique by being based on UID. We all will trust its authenticity which no one does today.

  10. I am an ardent supporter of Aadhar (having enrolled) and I agree NPR has a point. We can debate whether this is a WIN/LOSE for bureaucracy and the Poor. The fact is that Aadhar does very little for "Civil Society", who already have half a dozen cards (PAN, Ration, Election, Driver License, Credit, Passport etc.) The issue of being harassed by the police is overstated. There are millions of people with no address floating around the country. The real solution is to give them the opportunity to earn their way out of poverty to a better life and acquire an address in the process. Reliability of bio-metrics has been pointed out and Aadhar is not 100%. The data is now available to determine the level of accuracy. I can authoritatively state that it will be somewhere between 0% and 100%. Prior to Aadhar we were at 0%, now we will be closer to 100%. Going from Zero to Hero in one swoop is well nigh impossible. And so we are better off than before. As Raj Mashruwala suggested, using the Aadhaar system (what's in a name) as the system to achieve NPRs goal would be a WIN for the country.

  11. Dear Anonymous,

    Unfortunately there is oppression going on and kidneys, corneas, livers etc. are being stolen. This is a complicated issue and one solution is to monitor hospitals that do these operations. I would even go as far as forcing rogue doctors to become kidney donors themselves.

    If you think Privacy is an issue, then get rid of your bank accounts, mobile phone, and any other modern conveniences you have acquired including the computer you used to send in your comments. Your Internet provider can trace your computer by its IP address and any one who hacks into their database can come knocking at your door. Sure you can go to an Internet cafe, but even there you are not safe. Medical records are already being maintained electronically by some hospitals and this will become more and more prevalent. So to protect your kidneys, don't go to a hospital that maintains electronic records. One need only to hack into those systems to get the data they want. If you really want to be safe, then get hold of a stick, make a bundle of your essential belongings, tie it to the end of your stick and go off into the forest. You might be safe, from humans.

  12. Dear Anonymous,

    You have a good point about the need to be identified if one is charred in an accident. Pardon the inconsistency in your argument. You were worried about cost issues. Surely adding this requirement to Aadhar would increase the cost. If someone is worried about being charred to death, in an accident, then they could voluntarily keep a dental record in some safe place to be used if there is some possibility that a charred unrecognized body is theirs. The Government cannot solve all the myriads of problems that individual citizens have.

  13. For more "nuance" EPW article by Usha Ramanathan would be a good place to start.

    Also plz read the news below:

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. My blog-post above was prompted by a news report (by the Tribune) on the same subject, referring to the standing committee observations. Hence the slightly different list of points I've made.

    I strongly disagree with the conclusions drawn from the observations; and even disagree with some of the observations themselves (Security Gaps, Directionless). Many people whom I know; those who understand these technologies, the processes and the eco-system being built would agree with me.

    As an IT Advisor of the Haryana Govt (which, I daresay, is not yet sold out to the UIDAI), my colleagues, my clients, hundreds of professionals I interact with and I -- have all had the opportunity to analyze all these above objections threadbare for over 2 years now. So ours is not a superficial, ill-advised, politically motivated opinion. Many of us have issues with some area or other of the project. Yet, it is our (now speaking for unnamed others, pardon me for this small liberty) considered, professional opinion that this is among the best conceived, best executed and the most far reaching efforts put forth so far by our Government.

    Would the opponents of UID also oppose the NPR effort of duplicating the very thing they are decrying? If yes, I would concede that at a minimum, there is a principled approach to this whole argument. It would also put aside some self-serving motivations and help us address the core objections.

    However, one thing is clear. In a constructive debate, simply reiterating positions leads nowhere. Nor do references to unsubstantiable allegations (or assertions, for that matter, I admit) help.

    I will begin with the first broad brush-stroke for all those arguments of the nature: "UID doesn't solve this-or-that huge problem".

    My answer: Please don't look for miracle pill. UID Project is one of the foundations that will help build the edifice. The surrounding eco-system is being built as we speak. We in Haryana are attempting to build a simplified, integrated service delivery engine in a UID-enabled world. Please feel free to come and engage with us IRL. We will be happy to show you what we plan and perhaps in a few months time, some glimpses of the possibilities too.

    In another post, I will also address objections of the nature "UID Project will turn into a monster that will haunt us all"

  16. Can someone tell me under which law NPR is collecting biometrics ? As also, in Karnataka, for DL, one requires biometrics. I am opposed to anything which collects biometrics be it UID or NPR. Given that biometrics can be faked easily, just depending on biometrics for identification is no good in India, where in a remote area, the agents can play havoc.

  17. Per the EPW article (Usha Ramanathan) mentioned above, NPR is collecting biometrics under the Citizenship Act of 1955. That article is worth reading, BTW -- despite some differences I have.

    General opposition to collection of biometrics: Good that we now have a principled basis for opposition. The discussion (on this aspect) is now worth carrying forward (here or elsewhere) because it won't degenerate into repetition of positions.

    On the possibility of faking biometrics: I agree. Whether that is reason-enough to tank the whole project? I disagree.

    **disagreement, when used as a starting point for constructive debate is a great tool in balancing multiple stakeholder interests and views**

  18. One needed to have a full life cycle pilot in one state before going ahead with the whole project. That way, one can see what are the implications of stealing / faking biometrics, rather than take it a know-it-all position. There are several issues with biometrics: one needs scanners with live finger detection; biometrics has to be encryted from the point of capture itself, not from the laptop while exporting. In the latter case which UIDAI employes, one can clone the laptop disk and steal biometrics. Thirdly, biometrics has to be stored in encryted form in the database. Fourthly, biometrics has no fall back. Once lost, identity is lost forever. Some fakers have taken the biometrics of thousands of people. These people are now excluded for good. All these reasons and I am sure there are more -- make biometrics a very bad candidate for proving identity if used by itself. One has to consider the possibility that the biometrics is stolen and have a second line of defense --- say a one time password etc. But then, there our lack of literacy of the population comes in the way, not to mention additional cost. There is no-cost benefit analysis done for the project. These issues had to be resolved in the beginning and a pilot undertaken. And I am not even talking about the problem of de-duplication when the records become 100s of million. How does one know if de-dup is working? Is there a way to find out or you swallow what the vendors --- who dont show you the technology --- say line, hook and sinker?

    I am just giving a trailer of the issues. This project is so full of holes that it has to be junked and I am not for NPR either.

  19. @Raj Mashruwala You said
    ...So answer to your question of need for PAN card and Driver's license. You will still need them but each will be more reliable because they will be truly unique by being based on UID. We all will trust its authenticity which no one does today...

    So what proof is required to enroll for UID? I hope its not the "unreliable" ones -PAN card VoterID Card you mention.

  20. @Anonymoys..about proof. Go enroll and you will find out. I did and I know. The worst case scenario is one can register as Lalu Prasad (thank heavens we have just one in Parliament) using the introduction method. That done that person will always be Lalu Prasad. If they registered as someone else for PAN card/Voter ID, when their UID is referenced, this discrepancy will be exposed.Maybe we need stiff punishment for like a good lashing for people who indulge in this lafda.