In 2009, just around the time the aadhaar initiative was launched in India, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a YouTube video titled “Scary Pizza”. The description of the video, which is embedded below, reads, “You’ll never want to order another pizza again if we give away all of our civil liberties in the name of security“. It is a 1:42 minute video, and if you make time to watch it, you’ll understand why we Indians may lose all our civil liberties, too, in the name of security and national interest. Maybe, ACLU was telegraphing a message to us, about monitoring and surveillance, which we all have failed to notice.
I was reminded of this video after reading a news article that online retailers and internet companies are now asking the customers to furnish aadhaar number to use their services. According to the article, Amazon India wants the aadhaar number to track lost packages of its customers. Zoomcar, a car rental company, wants the aadhaar number as a proof of identity while booking cars. What was once sold to the nation as a “purely voluntary act” has now become mandatory and compulsory to avail various services and benefits from the government. Now, the private sector companies, too, want the aadhaar number to complete a transaction. How far will this madness go? Where and when will it end? Next, will Dominos and Pizza Hut want the aadhaar number while ordering pizzas?
An aadhaar world
Well, let’s take a moment and think along those lines. Let’s assume that in the very near future, aadhaar becomes the National Identify Card for all Indians. Let’s also assume that the Supreme Court rules in favor of the government making it mandatory for all Indians to have an aadhaar card to avail various services and government benefits. Then, we all will need an aadhaar card to complete many of our day-to-day activities. The card links our bank accounts, PAN, cell phone numbers, driver’s license, etc., to a single 12 digit random number.
Furthermore, let’s assume that it will now be mandatory for all Indians to connect their aadhaar number with their voter’s ID card, demat accounts, credit cards, debit cards, e-wallets, health insurance, home insurance, life insurance, Central Government Health Scheme account, etc. Also, let’s say that you will have to use aadhaar for your hospital, doctors’ and pharmacy visits, and any online purchases.
Finally, since you will have to link your aadhaar card with your bank account, it will act as an e-wallet, too. And, the BHIM app will be mandatory for all Indians. Basically, our personal aadhaar card will act as a tether connecting every facet of our life. In addition, since aadhaar card/BHIM app acts as an e-wallet/money transfer mechanism, we also live in a cashless society, which is one of the visions and the mantra of the present government.
Now, what kind of privacy violations will be possible in an aadhaar-based surveillance and monitoring world I have painted above? There are too many things to list. However, please allow me to indulge in a few hypotheticals.
Central government workers and their dependents enjoy the benefits of the Central Government Health Scheme. The Government of India spends crores of rupees to provide subsidized health care to its workers. The system knows the current health status of the members of the scheme. However, what it doesn’t know is their lifestyle choices.
If you have to connect aadhaar with the CGHS system, then with the press of a button any government entity can collect the data about your lifestyle choices—what you do, where you go, what you eat, how many times have you been to a private doctor or to a private hospital. Once the government has that data, it will be very easy for them to categorize people into high risk, medium risk or low risk. Now, since the system knows everything about the CGHS’ beneficiaries and their lifestyle, it can deny them services or ask for a co-payment or boot them out of the scheme based on which class a person falls into.
We elect MLAs and MPs using a secret ballot. Therefore, if we are to seed aadhaar with our voter’s ID, then the government, if it wants, can find out whom we have voted for and can even retaliate against us for making that choice. It should worry us all what a government can do when it can with great precision identify all its oppositions. Have we forgotten what happened to the opposition leaders during Emergency?
Health insurance, car Insurance, home insurance and life insurance
If insurance companies can have access to aadhaar data, then, they too can compartmentalize us based on our habits. For e.g., a health insurance company can ask for a higher premium if it “thinks” that we are leading an unhealthy lifestyle. Some people may say that’s fair in a capitalist society, “Our current risk profile should determine what premium we pay“. True, but they can use the same “unhealthy lifestyle” argument to deny our claim, too. No? It cuts both ways, right?
In addition, they can set up a system to monitor our lives 24/7, thereby denying us any privacy. Imagine this. You are a 35-year-old man with a heart condition, which your insurance provider is aware of. You are on a vacation with your wife, and you go to a pharmacy and buy a packet of condoms. That pharmacy immediately transfers this data to the system monitoring your activities. In your most intimate moments, you receive a text message from your insurance provider stating that based on your pre-existing heart condition a 12 pack condom is too many for you. Therefore, should anything happen to you during your vacation, your claim will be denied. How is that for infringing upon your privacy? Do you think an unscrupulous insurance provider would be incapable of doing that? The future can be Orwellian, and we aren’t ready for it.
The same is true for car insurance. A few traffic tickets/challans for speeding and rash driving, and your insurance goes up. Again, some of you may say, “What’s wrong with that; that’s how it is in the US“. True, but don’t forget the health insurance guy. He also notices in his system that you got a few challans, which means he will update the record and mention, “risky lifestyle; dangerous driving habit“, an argument that may be used in the future to deny any health insurance claim.
Similarly, if you live in a crime ridden/unsafe neighborhood and the report of crimes in that neighborhood go up, it may trigger an automatic increase in your home insurance premium. The system may automatically deduct the premium increase from your aadhaar linked bank account. Now, if your bank account does not have enough balance, and you don’t have overdraft protection, a single failed debit transaction may freeze your entire life, because you guessed it, the system flags you as “risk profile elevated; bad financial planning“. Now, to the entire system you become a red flag, requiring extensive and intrusive monitoring. You are no longer a citizen; you have just become a vassal or a subject of the state.
Political opponents and journalists
How easy would it be to control your opposition or silence journalists if the system is privy to their private lives? All the system would need to do is flash a text message or an email to the political dissenters, about what it knows about their private lives, and have them freeze like a deer in a headlight.
Now, I have heard many people say, “I am okay with the government looking into my private life. I have nothing to fear as I have nothing to hide. Only the corrupt, the black money holders and the anti-nationals worry about the government looking into their life“. That’s a specious argument. I’d like to ask them to think again about having nothing to hide. We all have our private lives, which we guard and protect from any trespassing. Many have given up their life protecting their private lives, their family, their dignity, their freedom.
If people really have nothing to hide, then, why do they close their bathroom door while taking a shower, or close their bedroom door while being intimate with their partner or while changing their clothes. Furthermore, if people indeed have nothing to hide, will they have no problem if somebody surreptitiously takes a picture of them naked and shares it with all online. If that is to extreme an example, then, maybe, they will have no problem sharing with the world the password of their various online accounts. What about their phone? Will they allow a complete stranger to browse the content of their phones and share it with the entire world? How about their PC or their bank lockers, if they have one?
Framing the innocent
Look at what transpired in Gurugram recently. A conductor of a school bus was allegedly framed by the local law enforcement authorities for the murder of a young child. In this case, the unscrupulous policemen, became the perpetrators of a crime because they allegedly tortured and forced a confession out of an innocent man. Only after the CBI took over the case did this fact come to light. Otherwise, this innocent person may well have gone to the prison for life for the murder of a kid.
In the aadhaar world of the future, framing an innocent person will be all too easy a task for the Orwellian overlords. The authorities can quite easily access the aadhaar database to get a copy of a person’s fingerprint and place it on a crime scene to frame a person. Now, when the authorities “find” your fingerprint at the scene of a crime, what alibi will keep you out of prison or off the gallows. When the system identifies a vulnerability, it will try its utmost best to protect itself. And if that means, frame a person to exact revenge, then, it will do exactly that.
Your personal habits will be at the fingertips of the authorities. They will know every single detail about you, right from your birth till your death. And when they know your past behavioral patterns, it will be very easy for them to approximate your future actions and control you. If the system notices that you are buying too many drinks at a bar, it will automatically send your driver’s ID and your car’s registration number to the cops, who will be waiting for you outside. Heck, they may even temporarily disable your aadhaar based e-wallet. Similarly, if your grocery list shows that you aren’t consuming your daily dose of vegetables, but consuming too much meat, your health insurance premium may go up, and you may also end up in the high risk segment in the CGHS system.
System failure/biometrics authentication failure
In a country where 24-hour electricity and water supply are luxuries for many of its citizens, a system failure due to an infrastructure problem will wreak havoc to an aadhaar based system. And technology fails and fails catastrophically, sometimes. Furthermore, somebody can maliciously lock you out of your aadhaar connected accounts and blame it on a system failure. Have you ever had a credit card/debit card transaction fail because of technology issues? I have. Imagine being at a hospital and not being able to make a payment using your aadhaar based payment system, because for some weird reasons the system cannot complete the transaction. What if the hospital denies you treatment because it cannot verify that you are indeed who you claim you are, because your aadhaar authentication has failed.
Think aadhaar authentication cannot fail? Well, think again. According to a Bloombergquint article, “The failure rates on Aadhaar Enabled Payment System for interbank transactions (which is a part of all Aadhaar authentication requests) were found to be as high as 60 percent by the Watal Committee on digital payments which published its report in December.” Furthermore, Livemint has reported that, “The Aadhaar biometric authentication failure rate in MGNREGS is as high as 36% in Telangana.” Based on these data, do you think you can go to town talking about the infallibility of aadhaar and aadhaar enabled payment system?
Some of you might say, paranoid much? Haven’t you gone overboard with your assumptions and hypotheticals. Have I? Aadhaar was purely voluntary, initially. However, very surreptitiously the goal post has been moved and it has now been made compulsory and mandatory for many services. Now, even the private companies are asking for our aadhaar numbers. While the current government was in the opposition, its own “leaders” were calling aadhaar a threat to privacy. Now, the same “leaders” have changed colors and are pushing aadhaar as if it is the greatest thing since slice bread.
Therefore, if the government is capable of changing its position on aadhaar at its convenience, isn’t it also capable of doing what I am assuming above? Are my assumptions and hypotheticals so far removed from reality? Haven’t governments gone rogue before? Have you forgotten what Edward Snowden had revealed about the activities of National Security Agency (NSA), post 911? How the agency was monitoring the digital traffic of all US and foreign citizens. Also, didn’t NSA tap into the phone of 30 world leaders, including the chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel? And this happened in the US, a country that supposedly sets examples for the world to follow, when it comes to personal freedom, civil liberties and privacy. Go figure!
“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”
This quote by Lord Action is prescient in any aadhaar discussion. Mistake not, aadhaar is all about power and absolute power. The long arm of an overreaching government can misuse a national identity card scheme such as aadhaar. It can be used as a leash on its citizen by an authoritarian government, if ever our country heads that way.
Let’s take a step back and with an open mind try to comprehend how, using aadhaar, our civil liberties or our privacy can be violated by a government that wants absolute control over the life of its citizens. Do we really want to live in a Orwellian world where all our actions can be monitored by the Big Brother, in the name of security or national interest? We need to understand why aadhaar may actually be a trojan horse for very slowly turn our nation into a surveillance state? Think that such government overreach isn’t possible. It has already happened. NSA in the US has done it and is still doing it. GCHQ in the UK is doing it and many other deep state organizations are doing it worldwide.
The aadhaar solution?
Furthermore, a national identity card is not a panacea to solving various ills–corruption, terrorism, black money, racketeering, money laundering, etc.–that ail our society today. A national identity card will undoubtedly lead to the government creeping into our private lives and trying to control it. You can take this argument to the bank. Even the UK has repealed the Identity card act, 2006, which aadhaar is based on, because of the fear of government overreach and control. Theresa May, the present Prime Minister of the UK, who was then the Home Secretary, had this to say justifying the scrapping of the ID card scheme.
This bill is the first step of many that this government is taking to reduce the control of the state over decent, law-abiding people and hand power back to them.
With swift parliamentary approval, we aim to consign identity cards and the intrusive ID card scheme to history within 100 days. – Theresa May, 2010.
A nation of statists
A majority of my countrymen are statists. 73% of the people polled trust this government. It was 82% in 2007. Our belief in our government is absolute, even though successive governments have done very little to ameliorate conditions of the average person or the underprivileged. Even today, many basic amenities are unavailable to the poor and the needy. Even knowing this fact doesn’t shake my countrymen’s faith in the government. They fail to realize that the government is not there for them. The government and politicians are only for themselves and for maintaining the status quo.
Therefore, I don’t think many of my countrymen will even bat an eyelid, if the government tells them that in the name of national security, and to protect them from a bogeyman, they need to install CCTV cameras inside their homes. Because, after all, who doesn’t like a big brother watching our every move, right? And who wouldn’t like a CCTV camera for free. We always feel secure knowing that someone is watching our back, right? Well, until the person watching our back stabs us in the back by violating our trust.
Tyranny vs. Liberty.
Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty. – John Basil Barnhill
The above quote, often erroneously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, eloquently describes how the balance of power should be titled in peoples’ favor. Unfortunately, in almost every country of the world, the balance of power is skewed towards the government.
We the people do not realize the power we hold over our elected representatives. We are often subservient to our overlords, and our overlords take full advantage of that extorted privilege.
Edward Snowden is credited with the quote,
Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.–Edward Snowden
It seems many people in this country are making the same fallacious argument about “privacy” and “nothing to hide”, when debating about the pros and cons of aadhaar. The same people may one day realize that the liberties and freedom that we willingly give away are rarely won back sans a “battle” with the overlords.
We need to be careful of what we wish aadhaar to accomplish. We may not like the “package” when it finally arrives. And by then it may very well be too late for a course correction, way too late.
We at Omygdala dislike all politicians and political parties equally. It doesn’t matter if it is Congress or BJP or AAP or JDU or JD or CPI or TMC or any other local or national political party. They are mostly corrupt, they are mostly the same… two sides of the same coin. Politicians are in it for themselves and nobody else. The political world is filled with notorious reprobates. Hence, I am not trying to make a statement on behalf of a particular political party. My allegiance is only to the Constitution of India, and not to any political party. This opinion is mine and mine only.