Is the Aadhaar card secured?

Digital surveillance : India scanned a billion people

"Nothing works. We're upset, ”says 60-year-old widow Shanno Devi in ​​New Delhi. The woman who lives on ration cards has not received any food since January. The reason: Your biometric data are not read. Since January, only those who can present their Aadhaar number and have their fingerprints have received state aid in India's capital. In October, the city government linked the data of all two million residents who are entitled to government support in the form of rice and other foodstuffs with the Aadhaar database, in which 1.2 billion Indians - 99 percent of the adult population - are now registered.

The largest biometric-based digitization project in the world began in 2009 with a promise to the poor: a unique twelve-digit number was intended to prevent the misuse of ration cards by those in need, and government aid should finally benefit those who needed them most. The number of every Indian citizen should be stored in a single central database with their personal information, address, a photo, ten fingerprints and two scans of the iris - the iris in the eye.

Tagesspiegel Background Digitization & AI

Digital politics, regulation, artificial intelligence: The briefing on digitization & AI. For decision-makers and experts from business, politics, associations, science and NGOs.

Free test now!

Praise from the World Bank

The highly respected Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of the successful IT company Infosys, took over the management of the data project. Aadhaar, which means "foundation" in the Hindi language, became Nilekani's showcase project. The World Bank praised it as "the most demanding identification program in the world".

From 2009 to 2017, Nilekani's employees visited every corner of India to take names, photos, fingerprints and iris scans of the Indian population. When the government changed in 2014 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a critic of the Aadhaar program, took over the government, Nilekani immediately went out personally to promote the project.

The meeting with the newly elected head of government was a complete success: a few days later, Aadhaar was given a second life. The project, which originally provided for voluntary registration, was expanded into a mandatory system under Modi. Recently, the administration in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad made aadhaar mandatory for a bar visit. If you want to have a glass of wine or beer in Hyderabad, you have to show your card.

"My iris is mine"

Only those registered in the national database can open a bank account, get a phone number or credit card, receive social benefits, get married, register land or pay taxes. “Is there a life without aad hair?” A newspaper recently asked in view of the extensive data collection.

Resistance to the project already arose in 2010 when the first tickets were issued. At that time, privacy advocates and civil rights activists warned that the mega data project in its facility was totalitarian, unconstitutional and restrictive of freedom.

There is now growing concern that Aadhaar is turning India into a surveillance state. The mega-data project is changing the relationship between the citizen and the state, argues the well-known human rights lawyer Shyam Divan, who has taken Aadhaar to court. “My fingerprints and my irises are mine and only me. The state cannot take my body away from me, ”argues the lawyer. On the one hand, the state cannot say that registration is voluntary if, on the other hand, it is required that an Aadhaar number be entered in the tax return, according to Divan. “The global companies need Aadhaar, not the poor,” rants the lawyer Kapil Sibal, referring to cases like that of the widow Shanno Devi, who now has to get by without food aid.

Government denies data leaks

Data protectionists also criticize the project's lack of transparency and security. It is unclear who has access to the database and how the data is protected. Journalists recently told The Tribune newspaper that they could get a look at the database for 500 rupees, the equivalent of 6.30 euros. An anonymous seller gave them access to the Aadhaar system via WhatsApp and a digital payment service. However, the government vehemently denies that there are any data leaks.

The country's Supreme Court said at the end of January that data protection concerns had to be taken seriously. The fact that private companies have access to the Aadhaar system is very worrying. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the platform brings benefits to the citizens. While there is still a dispute in court about the constitutionality of the data collection, the clock is ticking: banks, but also telephone providers, have set their customers deadlines until April 1st. If you don't bring an Aadhaar number, your account or phone should be blocked. Apparently there really is no life without aadhair.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page