Rapidly developing technology has given rise to an increase in concern around digital privacy, with contentious debates about user and consumer’s rights to protect their information and know where data collected about them is going and being used for by both private corporations and the government.
There is a growing perception that our privacy is under threat, with scandals such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal being at the forefront of the discussion. However, it is undeniable the affordances of modern technologies have greatly affected our livelihoods for the better. The question now is whether technologies that may place individuals’ privacy at risk for the purpose of obtaining greater social advantages are worth it or just.
This debate becomes even more contentious when discussing biometric identification. This piece will look into the realities of biometric identification by analyzing the implementation of the Aadhaar card system in India, and using it as a case study to explore the benefits and concerns around the framework, and discuss how systems of biometric identification may be applied in Australia.
What are Biometrics?
Biometrics are what allows a person to be able to be identified on the basis of physical identifiers that are unique to them. This can be:
- Facial features
- Retina and/or iris patterns
The oldest form of biometric verification is the use of fingerprinting, but nowadays, increasingly computerized and digitalized data means biometric verification has advanced greatly, meaning we now have technology to process identity verification almost instantaneously.
Anyone who has ever used their fingerprint or facial ID to unlock their phone is already a part of a digital revolution that uses biometric databases to verify identity.
(A brief explainer on Biometric Identification by AFP News Agency)
What is ‘Aadhaar’?
Aadhaar is a sophisticated identity verification system used across India to aid people in efficiently accessing public and private services.
The Aadhaar card itself constitutes of a unique 12-digit identification number, serving as identification and proof of residence in a similar way to how Social Security Numbers work in the United States, used for things such as:
- Applying for government subsidies
- Opening bank accounts
- Accessing SIM cards
- Applying for a passport
- Voting in state and federal elections
- Filing taxes
The system was established in 2009 with the intent of ensuring that services are able to go to the right people, and are able to be doled out efficiently; it was particularly geared at lower class Indians, many of who were unable to gain access to welfare services essential to them. Of India’s population of around 1.3 billion people, close to 1.2 billion have registered for an Aadhaar card as of 2019, making the biggest biometric ID system globally (Government of India, 2019).
The argument for biometric identification systems
There are undeniable benefits in the incorporation of biometric identification systems, especially when used to more effectively ensure access to public services. In India, benefits have been able to reach people they haven’t catered to before (Abraham,2018). Patients of tuberculosis are able to receive cash benefits which many of them didn’t know they were entitled to previously (Bhuyan, 2017), and nearly 30 million fraudulent and/or duplicate food ration cards were able to be eliminated (PTI, 2018), ensuring that services are able to reach more people who actually need them. Improved identification mechanisms have also sped up the process of verification of applicants for things like passport and job applications. Scholar Itty Abraham notes that “the poor and technologically less endowed are particularly enthusiastic about becoming legible to the government through this digital prosthetic” (Abraham, 2018).
This streamlined access to public services is a great asset, and would translate across to Australia, too. Advocates also make the argument that implementation of biometrics identification technology in Australia has many more uses, for example, in combating criminal activity and strengthening nation-wide security.
The concerns regarding biometric identification systems
While there are many reasons to move towards the implementation of a biometric identification system in Australia, there are real shortcomings in the process that must be addressed and grappled with before we do so; by analyzing the criticisms of the Aadhaar system in India, we are able to gain some insight into what these are.
The shortcomings of the Aadhaar program are evident in the multiple scandals that have been brought forward to the Indian Court and publicized widely in media – they are mainly twofold: privacy concerns regarding multiple information leaks by the Aadhaar system, and the failure of such systems leading to people being unable to access critical welfare services such as food rations, leading to fatalities in some cases.
There have been multiple incidences of the leaking of private data of citizens, with much information being able to be publicly accessed, and incidences of citizens’ fingerprints being photographed and duplicated. Amber Sinha, a worker for a not-for-profit center for internet education in Bangalore, states that the Aadhaar server itself is secure, but other government databases are where system failures occur. She suggests that “You need both robust laws to protect the system and privacy enhancing technologies which reflect those principles. […] Rather than continuing the expansion of a project which lacks technical and legal backbone, its scope and use should be limited till these structural reforms are incorporated.” (SBS News, 2018)
In the wake of such leaks, it was ruled in the Supreme Court hearing of the Aadhar Act in 2018 that the Aadhar card is voluntary to apply for, and not mandatory for essential services, both private and public, that should be made available to Indian public – no school, company or workplace are allowed to demand an Aadhaar card as a prerequisite to offering their services (Bhattacharya & Anand, 2018).
However, the sheer scale of the program being adapted into society means many things remain inaccessible to people without Aadhaar cards. Gauri Devi, who works as household help, states that “nothing happens without Aadhaar. To avail each subsidy, be it for food or health services, we are supposed to have the card. I did not get my Aadhaar even after registering myself…we are being deprived for no fault of ours” (PTI, 2018).
While in concept, geared to cater towards lower classes in India, the approach of rushing to make Aadhaar the most technically advanced biometric program has left many unable to access essential services, some of which include:
- Access to pension (Yadav, 2016)
- Access to food rations (Priya & Aditi, 2016)
- Being able to sit school examinations (The Indian Express, 2016)
- Being able to book train tickets (Srivas, 2016)
- Getting loans from banks and microfinance companies (Jaun, 2016)
Nandan Nilekani, the main architect behind the Aadhaar system, maintains, however, that these challenges “doesn’t take away from the enormous benefit of empowerment, mobility and savings this project has given India” (Khan & Frayer, 2018).
In regards to these shortcomings, we must take into consideration whether it is worth potentially compromising privacy in order to achieve what could be seen as ‘the greater good’ by means of implementing biometric identification systems in Australia. It is evident that mismanagement of such programs, or a lack of direct commitment to upholding citizens’ rights and interests as first priority, will lead to a service that is lackluster and poses serious feasibility questions. As Itty Abraham states, “data has become the new oil,” viewed by corporations as a precious commodity and often prioritized over actually providing citizens the services they need.
There are definite benefits of incorporation of biometric identification into Australia, especially when focused on how it can increase streamlined access to public services, heighten efficiency in access to other public services, and can strengthen law enforcement in being able to protect national security. However, there must be checks and balances central to the process to protect the privacy and security rights of citizens in order for it to be a truly just system.
Any skepticism on the public’s behalf should be adequately addressed, and the processes behind it, especially with regards to data storage, should be made extremely transparent, so as to keep them from being exploited by corporations for their profit.
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