Aadhaar Verdict: Time to Worry About the Ghosts of Your Data Past

Technology

Aadhaar Verdict: Time to Worry About the Ghosts of Your Data Past

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

spent the best part of this year trying to unsuccessfully link my Aadhaar to my phone number so a long due payment could be processed. I’d been coached in the benefits of the linking, to approach its ascendance with precious anticipation. So from fawning at the ease with which telecom employees recorded my fingerprints to visualising the linkage as this hurdle-less strip leaping over familiar bureaucratic barriers, Aadhaar seemed ahead of time. Except, it was anything but.

Technology is a fickle thing, at once momentous, captivating in its possibilities, at other times convoluted, and practically in the way. A task that I couldn’t complete through the marvel of technology – it turned out – was doable the old-fashioned, fill-a-form-and-send way. Yesterday, as a Supreme Court bench partially struck down the Aadhaar Act, making it ineligible as a necessity for certain private services and general sectors, let us not forget it also legitimised Aadhaar’s existence.

The court, in a majority judgment with only one dissenting voice, has maintained in more ways than one, that the database’s benefits outweigh its risks. But do they?

While the petition has been arbitrated in court over the last few years a number of things have been said about UIDAI’s plan to turn a network into a single-celled organism. From the likes of whistleblower Edward Snowden to authorities on security, it has been demonstrated time and again that a centralised register of our information is as untenable as it has been made to sound opportune.

First, we need to recognise that the digital age may swing convenience and efficiency as its sword, but it does so with the crown of data on its head. Technology is nothing without the information of people it intends to serve, be it in the context of preferences, trends, or as is with surveillance, vice. Naturally, data is the new plutonium, a stunningly simple target that unlike our land and water has to inevitably stand at a crossroads of accessibility, where it is both an asset and a threat. And though we should be able to entrust our tech-cops with the task of saving us the embarrassment of hacks and cyber attacks, recent history has suggested otherwise.

If risk and liability are Aadhaar’s greatest imports, should its constitutional validity even be celebrated?

Second, and perhaps a more philosophical question that the judgement itself posits, is whether Aadhaar even serves as that expedited link – the kind of sarkari jurisprudence one pines for in government offices? Not really. Aadhaar largely seeks to regulate the seeker, more than the provider. Though that isn’t exactly a bad thing, it forgets a majority of the people in India aren’t seekers by choice, but by circumstance. Denying them a benefit on the basis of a data programme they neither understand nor can conceive in their imagination, is unbecoming of a democracy. It is like asking a man to carve rocks after he has spent his life lifting them. Digitisation of government schemes, the normalisation of its most coarse procedures isn’t obviously a bad approach; in fact it should be the norm. But piling them on people, mandating it as a near criterion for citizenship is grimly oppressive.

In striking down section 57 of the Aadhaar Act, which does not require users to link it with their bank accounts and cellphone numbers, the court at least recognises that side of the argument. But has it also recognised the risks of making Aadhaar constitutional? Perhaps not.

India has, until now, operated on a trail of paper, most crucially an array of identities, each with a cache and value of its own. From ration cards to voter ids, the importance of each varies across demography – food for some, identity for another – and has therefore dictated their upkeep on a personal level. Each member of my family, other than me, for example, chooses to transact through paper, and it is reassuring to them at their late age that misplacing one of these documents would neither stall their life, nor the benefits they are anyway owed. But largely it is their incapacity to visualise this entity and its precedents that is problematic, not to mention how they’d rather live without it.

Aadhaar’s initial stipulations were inflexible, and while this judgement provides relief to some extent it still doesn’t address the scheme’s tender core – security. Right now, Aadhaar is like the spare key to your house, sitting under the doormat; its placement is both its advantage and disadvantage.

Aadhaar’s omnipresence, at one point, seemed its greatest virtue – ek hi number se sab kuch ho jayega – up until someone said the same thing with malice. Any expert in security or even a fan of spy movies will tell you one must keep the target big. Aadhaar does the opposite and is far beyond secure, despite what its guardians might claim.

We can perhaps rejoice in the fact that our bank accounts and phone numbers won’t be part of the loot, but the database will continue to aggregate information of each of our interactions with the state. At what point does it cease being a tool and become a burden. If risk and liability are Aadhaar’s greatest imports, should its constitutional validity even be celebrated? Does it not make sense to have as many keys as members in the house, instead of the one that everyone so tensely wishes they never find missing from under the doormat.

 

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