Privacy concerns multiply for Aadhaar, India’s national biometric identity registry

The largest and most sophisticated biometric identity system of any country in the world, India’s Aadhaar, is sparking new fears that the personal data it stores on more than 1.1 billion people could be vulnerable to exploitation.

Aadhaar, which translates to “foundation” in Hindi, is a unique 12-digit code tied to citizens’ biometric data and personal information. The system was launched in 2009 in an effort to extend social services to India’s millions of unregistered citizens, and to cut down on welfare benefit “leakage” resulting from an opaque and often corrupt bureaucracy.

Constructing a centralized repository of biometric data on nearly a fifth of the world’s population has raised serious concerns among privacy advocates.

 

The government has also looked to Aadhaar data to underpin mobile payment transfer platforms, which have become crucial for cashless transactions during the country’s demonetization push over past year.

But constructing a centralized repository of biometric data on nearly a fifth of the world’s population has raised serious concerns among privacy advocates, who cite several vulnerabilities both with the Aadhaar system and the Modi administration’s planned expansion.

Despite this, recent metrics indicate that Aadhaar has been enormously successful in achieving those goals. Though the program is theoretically voluntary, more than 99% of Indian adults are now enrolled. Over three billion individual identity verifications have been conducted, and some reports indicate that the Indian government is saving a billion dollars per year now that welfare subsidies can be paid to citizens directly through Aadhaar-verified fund transfers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ambitions to broaden the system even further, seeking to use Aadhaar as the gateway for accessing government programs ranging from public education to subsidized cooking gas, as well as partnering with private companies to offer services facilitated by the Aadhaar database.

Concerns, however, remain. One primary worry is that India’s legal framework for information security is still weak and fragmented, despite government assurances that Aadhaar biometrics have never been misused or stolen.

“There are no regulations in India on safeguards over and procedures for the collection, processing, storage, retention, access, disclosure, destruction, and anonymization of sensitive personal information by any service provider,” according to a 2016 World Bank report.

A patchwork of rules outlining “reasonable security practices and procedures” for personal data has accumulated since Aadhaar was launched, but there is no codified law outlining how data in the system must be secured, or what penalties exist for potential leaks, fraud or misuse.

“Imagine a situation where the police (are) secretly capturing the iris data of protesters and then identifying them through their biometric records” – Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore

This regulatory gap poses a particularly acute risk now that the government has begun offering companies and app developers support for starting new businesses that use Aadhaar data. Through a new initiative called IndiaStack, the administration is providing open program interfaces for companies in fintech, healthcare, and other areas to integrate Aadhaar-based transactions into their business platforms. While IndiaStack’s terms of use explicitly state that user consent is required for any information sharing between service providers and the Aadhaar database, doubts remain about the integrity of the network infrastructure and the lack of clarity surrounding acceptable information sharing and storing protocols.

Another source of concern is the risk that Aadhaar information could be leveraged by the government itself for political purposes.

“Maintaining a central database is akin to getting the keys of every house in Delhi and storing them at a central police station,” Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, told Reuters. “It is very easy to capture iris data of any individual with the use of next generation cameras. Imagine a situation where the police (are) secretly capturing the iris data of protesters and then identifying them through their biometric records.”

Further stoking fears of federal overreach, the Modi administration has attempted to make Aadhaar registration mandatory in certain sectors, violating a Supreme Court ruling from October 2015 that enrollment must remain voluntary.

Still, the benefits of building on the Aadhaar identity system appear to be outweighing the risks for now, and the system is gathering momentum worldwide. The World Bank is helping market the Aadhaar model abroad, and Russia, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria have all expressed interest in instituting national biometric identity programs of their own. Microsoft is already on board, and Google is negotiating ways to get involved.

Aadhaar may indeed live up to is potential and become the global standard for universal legal identity, but until India can manage to create more robust mechanisms to protect citizens’ personal data, their security could remain uncertain.

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Kaelyn Lowmaster is an Asia-focused Market Analytics and Research Associate with One World Identity. Prior to joining OWI, she worked in the Army's International Affairs Division at the Pentagon, and coordinated Johns Hopkins' graduate programs in Nanjing, China. Kaelyn holds an MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a graduate certificate from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, and a BA from Colgate University. She is currently based in Tokyo.