In a 2009 book called Imagining India, Indian tech billionaire Nandan Nilekani imagined a way to address India’s most vexing problems of corruption, poverty and lack of social services – a unique ID number for every Indian. 4 years later, India has undertaken the biggest ID program in human history. It’s called Aadhaar, and Nilekani oversees it. But trying to register 1.2 billion people, many for the first time, comes with serious privacy and data-collection concerns. OTM reporter Jamie York went to India to speak with Nilekani and lawyer Malavika Jayaram about the risk and reward of identifying every Indian.
BOB GARFIELD: As of last week, election season is officially underway in India, where two men are vying to be the next prime minister of the world's largest democracy. One is Rahul Gandhi, a last name you probably recognize. The other is strident Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi. Modi has been dogged by allegations that he fueled religious riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002 that killed as many as a thousand Muslims. That part of his resume is cause for even more than usual concern because the next prime minister will inherit the biggest national ID program in human history. As OTM producer Jamie York learned on a trip to India this summer, Americans are hardly alone in worrying about the potential abuse of personal data.
JAMIE YORK: In 2009, Nandan Nilekani wrote Imagining India, 600 pages of positive thinking about what India could achieve. Nilekani was the billionaire co-founder of one of India's great tech success stories, Infosys. He wrote that information technology and the lessons of the private sector could be brought to bear on India's most intractable problems, poverty, corruption, poor education. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart remarked on Nilekani's optimism.
JON STEWART: We’ve always viewed a country of a billion people as a detriment.
NANDAN NILEKANI: Mm-hmm, that's the big change. I think we saw it as a burden. Now we see it as human capital.
JAMIE YORK: In his book, he suggests that a good first step in making the most of India's human capital would be for India to figure out just how much of it there is. Its population of 1.2 billion people is projected to overtake China's in 15 years, yet India keeps slipshod birth records. The census tries to count only the number and types of households. Only 32 million pay taxes. India has more poor than the 26 poorest African countries combined, but the government cannot effectively provide social welfare because the poorest Indians, indeed, most Indians, are simply invisible to the government.
NANDAN NILEKANI: And, therefore, having the ID system as the underlying architecture for deployment makes sure that it goes to the right person, makes sure it goes to only genuine people.
JAMIE YORK: That’s Nandan Nilekani. He said that everyone in India should get a unique 12-digit ID number, using a scan of what are called biometrics, fingerprints and irises. With that number, the nation could better direct and track billions of dollars in public assistance.
NANDAN NILEKANI: The government of India spends large amounts of money in terms of entitlements and, and benefits. There could be scholarships, pensions, subsidized rice, guaranteed employment, fuel, and so on. This runs into billions and billions of dollars.
JAMIE YORK: India’s prime minister called Nilekani's bluff and proposed that Nilekani head up a national ID program. So Nilekani left the company that had made him a billionaire, and in 2009 set up the part public, park private Unique Identity Authority of India, or Aadhaar, Hindi for foundation.
NANDAN NILEKANI: So far, we have enrolled around 450 million people and issued the numbers to 370 million people.
JAMIE YORK: That’s about a third of India’s population, voluntarily enrolled in just four years.
Registration is being done by a web of private contractors, and it can happen anywhere, at a bank or a post office, a traveling tent or a fixed office, like the one I visited on a hot July day in Delhi. There was a line out the door. A young girl was getting her fingerprints scanned, as a handheld device scanned her irises. Her parents offered her personal info, which was typed into a laptop. It all took about 10 minutes. She’ll be mailed her final unique ID number once the database is checked to make sure she hasn’t been registered before. Behind her was a man in his sixties who had to guess at his birthday, and so forth and so on. When I asked people why they were volunteering to get the ID number, most answered like this:
[ANSWER IN HINDI]
INTERPRETER: He is – this is his identity, he says, and that is he is from India, so that is why he is getting it made.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
JAMIE YORK: In the slick ads that are on TV, radio, in newspapers, buses, billboards, banners across the road here, the point of registering with Aadhaar is vague but inclusive: Join us in being an Indian. But the prime motivation is probably the reason this man volunteered to get his eyes scanned today.
[MAN ANSWERING IN HINDI]
INTERPRETER: He doesn’t have an account in the bank, so it is essential for him to get Aadhaar and a new id then.
JAMIE YORK: The number will allow the poorest to get a bank account, most for the first time.
NANDAN NILEKANI: Suppose you want to withdraw money from your bank account, which you have received from the government, to use your fingerprint or your iris, you authenticate and then you withdraw your money. That ensures that only you withdraw your own money. It’s linked to an identity. So, obviously, once you do that, it streamlines things, reduces diversion and ensures that the genuine people get the benefit.
JAMIE YORK: “Diversion” is a nice way of saying stolen. Nobody knows how much of India’s aid for the poor is siphoned off due to corruption, but it’s a massive, vexing problem. Now, Nilekani argues that India can never pull itself out of poverty if it doesn’t create a foolproof ID, a digital system for getting aid directly into a bank account. But any stab at a solution on such a massive scale comes with its own problems.
NANDAN NILEKANI: Because even on such scale, if you enroll 400 million people, and even if you had a 1 percent error, that’s 4 million errors.
JAMIE YORK: So let’s say there is a 1 percent error rate, what do those 4 million people do when they’re misidentified? Malavika Jayaram is a lawyer, a member of the Center for the Internet in Society and a doctoral candidate, who has been studying Aadhaar. She says that, well, nobody knows.
MALAVIKA JAYARAM: There isn’t a law that governs it. If you want to roll out something this ambitious, it needs to be underpinned by a set of legal rules that say what you can and can’t do with the data. Who can see it? When do you delete it? What happens if there is a mistake? Can someone go and have it corrected? What is the redress, if that doesn't happen? What are the remedies open to them? What if there’s identity theft? What if their data is stolen?
NANDAN NILEKANI: Well, in fact, I wrote to the government three years back saying that we should have such a law. So that’s, again, in process.
JAMIE YORK: The breakneck speed with which his idea went from his imagining to the largest biometric ID program in history means that some of the finer points weren’t ironed out first.
NANDAN NILEKANI: Given that we want to, in the long run, have a regulatory authority to manage this whole thing and, and Aadhaar, we have proposed a bill, a UIDI bill which is currently with the government and will be debated in due course in the Parliament.
JAMIE YORK: Aadhaar is unique in that it was approved by the prime minister but not by India's Congress. So what happens when the prime minister changes next year? Nilekani says we need to see Aadhaar’s data collection as a small part of a much bigger issue.
NANDAN NILEKANI: I would say that on balance the information which is available here is less than what your mobile phone company knows today, far less. So I think – that’s what I’m saying, we have to look at this as a much larger issue. Any country or government has to put in place the, you know, checks and balances for using the digital data in ways that are not the way they were intended. But I’m just saying that’s – that applies to everything and, in fact, some of those other things are actually more dangerous.
JAMIE YORK: Invoking cell phone data is instructive. India’s got close to 90 percent cell phone usage. Clearly, like the rest of the world, Indians have chosen to ignore certain privacy concerns, in favor of convenience. Likewise, no one forces you to get an Aadhaar ID. But try living without one. Jayaram.
MALAVIKA JAYARAM: You can’t get a phone without one. You can't get a driver’s license without one. You can’t open a bank account without one. Certain government jobs say that, you know, you can't get your pension, unless you have the number. So I think it makes a mockery of the voluntary nature of it, if you make it impossible for me to function without this.
JAMIE YORK: And when citizens are compelled to register with a public-private partnership that lacks clear rules:
MALAVIKA JAYARAM: You are effectively changing the social contract. People may trust governments in a way that they don't trust the private sphere, so I think expecting people to just agree to a scheme because it’s their government no longer is valid when it's not their government implementing it. You know, people need to have the freedom to opt in or opt out. They need to have the freedom to know what decision to make, and they need to have the information.
JAMIE YORK: Nilekani's response is, wait; let’s remember, this is a discrete set of information taken for a specific purpose. NANDAN NILEKANI: This is not a biometric system being done from a security perspective, but to make delivery of public services to the poor and the marginalized and the disenfranchised, making that better.
JAMIE YORK: The information collected is limited to your biometrics - your name, address, age, gender and phone number, but the assurance that this info will be used by Aadhaar solely to verify the delivery of aid and services, it’s just that, an assurance. There’s no law, little check on it being shared one day with other parts of government, law enforcement, border security. Jayaram says that while Indians are generally quite trusting of government, they have good reason to be cautious.
MALAVIKA JAYARAM: In Gujurat, several years ago, when you had ethnic riots between Hindus and Muslims, it was the voter ID card that actually helped them know who was a Hindu and who was a Muslim and which neighborhoods were predominantly Hindu and Muslim, and it helped to actually target people in a much more ruthless and effective way.
JAMIE YORK: Ethnic and religious attacks are alarmingly common in India. In the 2002 Gujarat riots, roughly a thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed in a single week. Aadhaar doesn’t collect the religious or caste data that's usually the flashpoint in this kind of mass murder, but it doesn't have to. Caste and religion often are obvious from your name. Tie that to your address and it's understandable why some may fear the registry. And Jayaram says that your religious identity is just the tip of the iceberg.
MALAVIKA JAYARAM: I think one of the craziest conferences that I ever attended was the LGBT community in Bangalore decided to have a meeting to discuss the fact that the your gender field, when you applied for the card, was actually you could do Male, Female or T for Transgender. And they said, well, that's pretty progressive, and it sounds very cool and very unlike, you know, India to do this. So I inherited certain property from my family because I was the oldest son. I am now turning into a woman, what does that do to my property rights? You know, under my community or under this kind of religious law, women don't inherit anything, so do I lose all my land?
JAMIE YORK: Nilekani gets frustrated with all the quibbling about hypotheticals, what the law doesn't safeguard, yet.
NANDAN NILEKANI: The law not being passed, it has to happen but, but it does not mean that we should stop giving benefits to people. It’s a tradeoff which is well worth it. [LAUGHS] I mean, there are 450 million people who are voting yes!
JAMIE YORK: But can a high-tech solution really strike at the root of the deep-rooted low-tech problem of corruption? Nilekani's argument boils down to this: You won't know until you try.
NANDAN NILEKANI: The fact is I’m in the real world. I’m actually getting it done. I can always create a theoretical ideal world, which is – which says that's better than this physical reality. You end up creating a bias for inaction.
JAMIE YORK: Jayaram isn’t having it.
MALAVIKA JAYARAM: Because once your data’s out there, you can’t get it back.
JAMIE YORK: She thinks it's a false choice between taking action now or waiting for regulation. She says India's dire poverty and corruption make these false choices all too common.
MALAVIKA JAYARAM: I can see why someone who is hungry isn’t thinking beyond their next meal, and something as nebulous and, you know, philosophical and ephemeral is not of great concern to them until they’ve eaten. But you have a spectrum of choices in achieving goals, and there are ways that you can manage that trade-off. You can have security and, you know, be able to eat. You can have privacy and have transparency. You can have both.
JAMIE YORK: It's a fascinating debate but one that India is just now beginning to have. And though press coverage has only lately started criticizing Aadhaar, no matter the criticism or the mistakes, Aadhaar may quite possibly already be too big to fail. Malavika Jayaram is hoping its size can be used against it, that the inevitable mistakes will mount, until India recognizes that it was folly to think that one system, no matter how high tech, could root out a force like corruption. Meanwhile, on a blazing Delhi day in July, the line of Indians looking to join the Aadhaar experiment extends out the door.
For On the Media, I’m Jamie York.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Laura Mayer. We had more help from Zac Spencer and Megan Teehan, with special thanks to Krista Maar in India. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Dunne and Ken Feldman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our Senior Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.