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Aadhaar: India's information war over ID cards

Aadhaar: India's information war over ID cards
From Al Jazeera - December 15, 2017

New Delhi, India -India must extend the deadline linking a national ID card to banking, phone accounts and government services to the end of March 2018, the Supreme Court has ruled.

Friday's developmentsrenewed attention on theambitious national identity card project, "Aadhaar", which the government touts as the largest biometric ID card programme in the world.

The validity of the government's orders - whether or not citizens can be forced to enrol, for instance - will be debated in the top court from January 17.

The launch of Aadhaar combined with several high-profile leaks of citizens' data have raised privacy concerns.

In August, the Supreme Court declared that privacy is a fundamental right, a move interpreted as a setback to the government's plans.

The mandatory use of national identity cards and connecting them to accounts and mobile phonesis being challenged at the top court.

The government says the project will lead to a "social revolution".

"Within reach of the country is what might be called the 1 billion-1 billion-1 billion vision," said Arun Jaitley, India's finance minister, in August. "That is 1 billion unique Aadhaar numbers linked to 1 billion bank accounts and 1 billion mobile phones. Once that is done, all of India can become part of the financial and digital mainstream."

Critics have warned that the public's privacy is at risk, claimingAadhaar cards would link a large amount of data, without clear safeguards for access or use by government or private companies.

They say that Aadhaar would allow authorities to create a full profile of a person's spending habits, phone records, banking records, rail bookings, property ownership and a trove of other information.

'You would cease to exist'

Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court lawyer, said India's poor, often denied access to social welfare schemes unless they can furnish an Aadhaar ID, are particularly vulnerable.

"People have starved to death because they were denied food entitlements for lack of Aadhaar," she told Al Jazeera. "The Bhopal gas victims, who I represent in the Supreme Court, are being denied compensation without it. On the flip side you have easy identity theft and [the] government handing over citizens' data to companies, and without consent."

In Jharkhand's Simdega district, an 11-year-old girl died of starvation in October, months after her family's ration cardwas cancelledbecause they did not possess an Aadhaar number.

The biggest privacy risk is your entire identity being stolen and you ceasing to exist if your Aadhaar number is deactivated for any reason ... You basically become a nobody

Srinivas Kodali, security researcher

"In November, 50-year-old Shakina Ashfaq died in Uttar Pradesh province, with her family alleging it was because the paralysed womanwas unable to appearin person at a government ration shop to authenticate her Aadhaar card," Nundy said.

It would be nearly impossible for poor, illiterate citizens to reconstruct their identities. Some may not even know if their identitieswere stolen in the first place, she added.

Srinivas Kodali, an independent security researcher based in Hyderabad, cited problems in the implementation and design of the project.

"The biggest privacy risk is your entire identity being stolen and you ceasing to exist if your Aadhaar number is deactivated for any reason," he said. "You would cease to exist for any government department or private service provider. You basically become a nobody."

In February, Kodali reported onan Aadhaar data leakfrom a government website, which saw the release of Aadhaar ID numbers for more than 500,000 people.

He complained tothe Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the government department responsible for administering the Aadhaar programme, but did not receive a response.

"All I received were legal notices [addressed to the portal Centre for Internet and Society which published my report highlighting this breach]," he said.

Speak for me, a website launched this week, is asking citizens to register their complaints about being forced to link Aadhaar with phone, banking and other services.The platform allows Indians to write to lawmakers to argue on their behalf in parliament.

Government denials as leaks continue

By the time of publishing, UIDAI had not responded to Al Jazeera's request for comment.

In November, UDAI's chief executive Ajay Bhushan Pandey claimed that the cards would be invaluable in fighting bank fraud, which he said had resulted in a $3bn loss over one year.

Aadhaar is a very safe and secure system ... Your biometric data is never shared with anybody else.

Deadly violence against activists

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