#MarginalizedAadhaar: Is Aadhaar a Tech Solution for a Socio-Economic Problem?

This is the fourth field diary entry from Subhashish, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. His year-long research project is focused on the challenges and opportunities within marginalised groups most affected by Aadhaar, India’s national digital ID system. *** “You cannot fix using the law what you have broken using technology“ says Indian cybersecurity expert Anand Venkatanarayanan, quoting Professor Sunil Abraham at the Kenyan High Court. Venkatanarayanan was appearing as a witness for the Nubians, a discriminated community for whom the Kenyan biometric database National Integrated Identity Management Scheme (NIIMS, also known as Huduma Namba) would create further exclusions after its implementation. Kenya and India do not just share a common history of colonisation. The national biometric programmes in both countries — NIIMS and Aadhaar respectively — have striking similarities in furthering marginalisation and criminalisation of communities who find themselves already underrepresented. The architects of Aadhaar were given the task of providing a technological solution to solve a deeply complex socio-economic challenge. India has a long history of racial oppression — one that existed much before colonisation and one that continues long after India’s formation as a democratic republic in 1947. After a decade of Aadhaar, the issues that the project was expected (or hoped) to resolve persist while many extremely marginalised communities find themselves in a multitude of troubles, especially in relation to access to basic amenities and services. As intimate conversations as part of my research indicate (see Field Diaries #1, #2 and #3) communities that are the most marginalised end up being further exploited as a result of our absolute trust in ‘tech-solutionism’. In this latest entry, I will be exploring how technological biases have materialised from systemic social issues of oppression in Indian society, especially in the context of Aadhaar.   ‘Tech-weapons of mass exclusion’ One can only grasp a tiny portion of what a national biometric-based identity system like Aadhaar means to a common citizen when viewed through the lenses of different demographics — social, political, economical, regional, linguistic, religious, and most importantly, access to privileges for those who are at the bottom of the pyramid. Identity systems need to include a great deal of social inclusion and rights of individuals to address issues across the spectrum — from widespread inequality to nuances for a particularly vulnerable group. If they don’t, people with privileges but with no understanding of diversity and inclusion end up building ‘tech-weapons of mass exclusion’. In my previous field diary, I highlighted many exclusions faced by people across India. Of those, the most haunting experience for me was when I listened to Harshabati Kheti, an old woman who had lost her fingers, and, over the span of 11 months, was stopped multiple times from enrolling by the authorities at her local Aadhaar enrolment centre. Kheti was denied food grains, rations and even emergency relief after the COVID-19 outbreak because of a technological limitation in Aadhaar. After initially being reported on Twitter by the Odisha State chapter of the National Right to Food campaign, and further reporting by myself, the state authorities intervened and provided Kheti the rice she was long entitled to. Aadhaar has been deployed for biometric-based authentication in the distribution of food grains and rations through the Public Distribution System (acronymed PDS — a federal government initiative to provide food and essential commodities to people in need with the objective of eradicating poverty). Between the 2001 and the 2011 Indian census, the number of people in need with disabilities rose from 21 to 26.8 million (a 22.4% increase). Professor Reetika Khera, in “Dissent on Aadhaar: Big Data Meets Big Brother” notes that: [..]The most forceful framing of Aadhaar was as an enabler of welfare. Identity and inclusion were the twin objectives that proponents used to sell the idea to the Indian public.[..]The claim was that having an Aadhaar number would enable inclusion. Non-existent beneficiaries were everywhere, according to the UIDAI narrative. A centralised database with a unique number associated with each person would sanitize beneficiary databases of such non-existent beneficiaries.[..]”   Contextualising tech One cannot talk about technology, particularly in India, without discussing systemic racial discrimination. India’s political power dynamics are much more racially divisive than ever before, and this has now become part of an apparatus for exclusion. The caste system in Hinduism divides people of Hindu faith into four major classes whereas a group of communities are considered as outcastes and untouchables. These communities, collectively known as Dalits in progressive discourses, are classified as Scheduled Castes in the Indian Constitution. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling right-wing nationalist political party dominated by “upper-caste” Hindus, has been pushing to exclude the Dalit, Muslim and Adivasi people – and several other marginalised communities – through divisive policies. From the perspectives of human rights, the technological implementations of these policies often translate into inherent design flaws. Access to information your native language One might wonder why Aadhaar-based authentication requires the Internet as a primary dependency when there have been 402 internet shutdowns and many other Internet slowdowns imposed by the current government since 2014. Furthermore, the 104 million Adivasis who are largely excluded because they come from low-income groups, get further excluded when they cannot learn anything about Aadhaar in their native languages.  Sora-language speaker Manjula Bhuyan from Odisha, India, highlights the importance of accessing information about digital identity in one’s native language (downloadable videos with captions and transcripts here).   Declared illegal The impact of this systemic bias ranges from Dalit and Muslim schoolchildren from low-income families being denied of scholarships because of errors in Aadhaar, to Muslim citizens being harassed and asked to provide proof of citizenship. Muslims in the state of Assam have been among the hardest hit — 1.9 million (mostly Muslims) out of the 33 million population of the State were declared illegal during the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a programme designed to eliminate illegal immigrants.  The state of digital identity took a critical turn when 1.9 million people of the total population of 31 million were declared illegal (downloadable videos with captions and transcripts here).   I contacted Ashraful Hussain, an activist who works closely with many discriminated Assamese Muslims. What Hussain shares is heart-wrenching. “Most Muslims – and even many Hindus of [West] Bengal origin – were purposely excluded in the ‘original inhabitant‘ category by the officers who were in charge of the NRC drive.” The 1.9 million people whose names were left out in the list of “legal citizens” have only one option left — to appear before the ‘Foreigner’s Tribunal’ to prove their citizenship in a judicial process. With the NRC exercise on hold during the COVID-19 lockdown, the fate of all these people hangs in the balance. Hussain fears that these people, who are becoming poorer due to lockdown restrictions, willneed to pay for the legal battle to prove their citizenship when lockdowns are lifted. But that said, the exclusion goes much further. “As many Muslim women are illiterate and are unable to find documents to establish their parental link, these women and their children are out of the the [NRC] list”, adds Hussain. NRC is deeply linked with Aadhaar. As lawyer Tripti Poddar explains, biometric data of individuals were collected during the NRC process. Those who made it to the NRC were issued Aadhaars whereas those who did not were denied. Poddar further argues that even a foreigner residing in India can receive an Aadhaar, but a citizen flagged by the NRC can be stripped of their constitutional rights.     Blog header credits: Biometric details being captured in an Aadhaar enrolment centre in Kolkata, West Bengal, India (Biswarup Ganguly, CC-BY-3.0)

Identity theft in the Western Cape

This is the fourth field diary entry from Tshepo, one of our Yoti Digital Identity Fellows. His year-long research project is looking at the digital identity landscape in South Africa, with a specific focus on the national smart ID identity programme from a human rights perspective.  ***** Identity theft is rising in South Africa, with fraudsters costing the economy more than R1 billion every year. While each province has its own story to tell in terms of statistics and impact, the problem is truly a national one. My research has continued in the Western Cape, the official COVID-19 epicentre of South Africa, as new challenges have affected this widely known city – the one with blue skies and an ocean view, overlooked by Table Mountain. The area has been hard hit by the pandemic that continues to spark fear and distress among the locals and the government. As of the 28th June 2020, the Western Cape had accounted for 59,315 confirmed cases out of around 132,000 cases nationally. The Western Cape insisted on re-opening its economy despite resistance from the national government, claiming that it has been their high levels of testing that has led to the high number of detected cases. This high level of testing has resulted in significant challenges across the city as health workers fanned out to businesses and people’s homes to carry out tests. Being able to identify who is, and who isn’t, a bona-fide health worker has turned out to  be a big challenge.  Increased fraud during covid Cape Town, previously known as the city that never sleeps, is eerily empty in the evenings due to lockdown restrictions. But one thing is for sure – fraudsters operate with no lockdown restrictions. Many have taken advantage of the lull to reinforce their positions within the city, something which has been easier than normal given the cities primary focus on flattening the curve of the coronavirus. Identity theft Unlike other provinces, the Western Cape has seen positive adoption of the Smart ID Card. That said, even prior to COVID-19 there were many reported cases of ID theft and many organisations have started taking an interest in the prevalence of identity theft and what it means for its victims. Many people go about their daily lives unaware that they were victims of fraud until they see the negative knock effect of their credit score. Some have indicated that they usually only find out they have become victims of identity theft when checking their credit report while applying for a home loan or car finance. Passport fraud The province has also faced challenges offering relief to undocumented refugees and providing shelter for homeless people. Fraudsters regularly take advantage by selling applicants fake IDs and passports. This takes place in the wake of a pandemic where everyone will do anything to get access to government handouts. The increased rate of passport forgery has been alarming. Eight foreign nationals and a South African home affairs department official have recently been arrested in connection with alleged corruption related to passports.   Financial fraud Citizens in the province have also indicated they’ve been noticing an increase in the number of fraudulent transactions in their accounts, a type of fraud that is becoming a trend in South Africa as a direct result of high identity theft. Consumers who discover fraudulent transactions on their bank accounts face a barrage of red tape to sort out the problem, and a threat of blacklisting if they try to stop the payment. There has also been a rise in the number of people who have been blacklisted over unpaid accounts they’ve never opened or unpaid invoices from reputable companies that they have never engaged with. With companies now willing to allow people to agree contracts or open accounts online instead of over the phone or in person, fraudsters have had a field day opening accounts on behalf of their victims using their information, and purchasing goods.  Unemployment fraud The province also has an unemployment rate of 20.4%, with many businesses closing and people being laid off. Fraudsters have also been able to take advantage here, pretending to represent companies or HR departments with open positions and enticing their victims to submit applications using personal and other sensitive information. This information is then used to commit different kinds of financial or identity fraud.  Transport Since the Western Cape is a coastal province with a major port, fraud usually takes place in trade-related services where goods are obtained illegally before being transported up-country. To put it simply, fake identities are used to load or unload goods at the hub and ports. Department of Transport employees have recently been arrested for allegedly illegally importing vehicles which were fraudulently registered, and for issuing fraudulent police clearances in the Western Cape. Biometric authentication as a solution? Another problem arises when people throw personal documents away without first shredding them. Fraudsters now target frequently-used dustbins in search of personal documentation they can use to impersonate a victim. Fraudsters are even impersonating officials by claiming to be from the fraud department alerting the client of a possible fraud attempt, effectively luring the victim to hand over personal details to access their funds. As a result, local companies are beginning to place their hopes on biometric authentication solutions, aimed at validating and verifying someone’s data using their identity registered on the Department of Home Affairs database. Locals have also indicated they sometimes make use of services from the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS), a non-profit organisation which is leading the fight against fraud and financial crime. They have a database with all the banks and can signal alerts during a scam. Locals are continually advised to use a secure place to store and protect their identities, with the Government of Cape Town now taking it upon themselves to educate the public in how to avoid identity theft. 

5 min read

The personal cost of accessing Covid financial support in Argentina

This is the fourth field diary entry from Paz, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. Her year-long research project is focused on unravelling what digital identity, and identity in general, means to the unemployed and under-employed individuals receiving support from public job centres and local labour organisations in Gran Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata in Argentina. ***** There’s little doubt that the Coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the digitisation of people’s everyday lives, in some places acting as an excuse to push certain groups to engage with technology and institutions in ways that might have seemed unlikely a year ago (just think of tracing apps, for example). In Argentina, one less obvious example of this kind of engagement is with the Emergency Family Income Payment (IFE), a payment the government is providing to vulnerable workers (the self-employed, domestic and informal workers, for example) to help them cope with the crisis. According to those I have interviewed, the payment of 10,000ARG has proved invaluable as they try to stay afloat. But despite any good that has come out of these payments, I believe a closer examination sheds light on some problematic aspects of this newly-established relationship between the state, banks, and vulnerable citizens. This interaction with private institutions might – ironically – expose them to further exclusion as existing information and knowledge asymmetries could be amplified, deepening epistemic inequality in society. The problems with the Emergency Family Income Payment (IFE) The first IFE payment was made to approved applicants by direct transfer to their bank accounts or in person at public mail offices. But for the second payment, the government-mandated recipients could only receive the funds directly into their personal bank accounts. So those who weren’t banked had to very quickly become banked. Today, getting banked is supposed to be easy, at least compared to how it used to be. A new type of bank account was announced by the government before the pandemic, called a free and universal bank account (cuenta gratuita universal or CGU), for any National Identity Card (DNI) holder regardless of their income or job situation. This account is free to maintain and all banks are obliged to offer it (how they go about offering it is another thing altogether – more on that in a future blog post, perhaps). Returning to the IFE itself, one major problem has been how low-income undocumented workers (both migrants and Argentineans) have been excluded because one of the key requirements is that they have a valid DNI. A second set of problems arises when people apply for the IFE, with the process particularly troublesome for the most vulnerable: having to apply online, opening bank accounts, and managing them through the banks’ apps which verify their identities using the SID, the digital identity system Argentina’s RENAPER (The National Registry of Persons) implemented in 2018. SID was built on top of the large and centralised national identity database system. These requirements – being able to effectively find information online, to run complicated paperwork-type tasks, to protect and store personal information and digital identities (such as usernames and passwords) in order to access ANSES (the public agency in charge of IFE) and the banks’ apps over and over again, or needing a certain type of hardware that is their own, and so on – become problematic because of the information and knowledge asymmetries we know exist. People are not being given the option to opt out of these digital interactions, despite the urgency for a benefit like IFE. Let’s think of unemployed workers who have a physical disability and no internet at home, blind people, those with no smartphones or computers, those who just do not know how to navigate the online space and have no-one to ask for assistance. Some of the NGO workers I interviewed mentioned the long hours they have had to spend, at the beginning of quarantine, helping people apply for IFE (despite that not being their job), and their anguish at knowing that some of the most vulnerable would probably not be able to apply for IFE because they didn’t have anyone to help them with the process. Recently, I myself helped one of my interviewees, Lisandro, find information on how to open a bank account to collect the second IFE payment. Lisandro is a clever and highly articulate guy in his twenties who has no wifi at home and unreliable connectivity on his five-year-old, second-hand smartphone. I spent hours on the internet, on the phone with a bank, and using Twitter and Facebook to ask banks about why the apps didn’t work on Lisandro’s phone. For me, I was very aware that I have a laptop and a good internet connection and don’t have the stress of wondering how I’ll eat next week. Handing over personal information You may be wondering why this is different from other situations in which governments handle benefits online, and which might complicate people’s lives. In short, it is because it involves the explicit sharing of highly personal and immutable information. And because of this, it ends up normalising the giving away online of all that we are. It is also different because banks hold a lot of power, and because IFE beneficiaries aren’t given the chance to decide whether they want these banks to have access to their biometric data. And they do not have much of a choice given they can’t afford not to try to access IFE. Higher income citizens aren’t put in this situation by the government. People are being forced to engage digitally in order to verify they are who they say they are to get the IFE, and in the process provide third parties with all the information contained in their DNIs. It’s not unusual to be asked to show some proof of identity whenever we are asked to, and this is a fairly standard (and expected) process here in Argentina. But in this case people aren’t just required to show their physical credential (DNI), they are being asked for much more – and the how and why have not been made explicit.

6 min read

Numbered Humans: the new podcast from our Digital Identity Fellows

We’re very excited to announce the launch of Numbered Humans, the new podcast from our 2019 Yoti Digital Identity Fellows. In each episode, you’ll hear from Paz Bernaldo in Argentina, Tshepo Magoma in South Africa and Subhashish Panigrahi in India, as they  reveal some of the key issues that have emerged during the first six months of their research.  Digital identity in marginalised communities The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people around the world and, as expected, the worst-hit are those already living in poverty, and the excluded and marginalised. We know that new technologies have the habit of further exacerbating divides present in the ‘real’ world, but they can also provide new windows of opportunity. Because of this, it feels more timely than ever that our three Fellows are investigating the positive and negative effects of digital identity on local – and often impoverished – marginalised communities. As expected, social distancing policies have severely impacted on the ability of our Fellows to carry out fieldwork, but this hasn’t affected their willingness to explore new ways of collaborating remotely. Numbered Humans is a great example of this. In the first episode Paz, Subashish and Tshepo share stories of how digital identity is playing out among the marginalised communities in the countries where they live and work.   Many digital identity solutions include the ‘tagging’ of citizens with unique numbers, and the storing of this information (along with much more, in most cases) in centralised databases. Our Fellows are interested in better understanding the implications of these systems, and what it means for marginalised communities. The first episode of Numbered Humans explores some of these issues. You can find it on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify, or you can listen online here. Meet our Digital Identity Fellows Paz is a development practitioner, researcher and activist investigating the meaning of digital identity among unemployed and underemployed vulnerable people living in the Argentinian cities of Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata. Subhashish is  a former community manager, documentary filmmaker and researcher, looking at the perspectives of some of the most marginalised communities across India impacted by India’s national digital identity program, Aadhaar. Tshepo is a researcher, strategist and innovator with experience working with Africa’s small business and social enterprise sectors. He is focusing on the role of South Africa’s digital identity program in fighting fraud, looking at the country’s Smart ID program from a human rights perspective. You can read more about the Fellows and their work at yotifellows.com 

People ask me: What do you mean by ‘digital identity’?

This is the third field diary entry from Paz, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. Her year-long research project is focused on unravelling what digital identity, and identity in general, means to the unemployed and under-employed individuals receiving support from public job centres and local labour organisations in Gran Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata in Argentina. ***** The image at the top of this article is a photo I took of a piece of paper with some phone contacts I was given at a public job centre office. They had ‘recycled’ people’s ID photocopies. I walked away with all the personal data of a person I didn’t know.  When conducting interviews, I try to avoid defining identity or digital identity. Providing definitions, at least at the beginning, might create a barrier with the interviewees, some of whom might suspect that “I am an expert and I only want you to confirm what I already know”. I do not want such a barrier, precisely because of the exploratory nature of my research; the knowledge I am looking for is in the interviewees. This is the case with all the interviewees, including those with no formal technology background whatsoever, or those with vulnerable backgrounds, or those looking for a job. More often than not, however, I am being increasingly asked for a definition. My response has been to paraphrase definitions in ways that can be easy to grasp, and which are also relatable and open enough so that people can be confident that their own knowledge and experiences are relevant.  I am doing my fieldwork in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a full-scale quarantine in Argentina. My interviews are now conducted online or over the phone, which makes it even more important for my narrative to be compelling and to elicit a nuanced conversation (that doesn’t end up turning into COVID-19 coping strategies).  In this post I’ll first provide the formal definitions, and then the informal ones I am mostly using during interviews.  Key concepts Identity I do not provide a clear-cut definition, and I believe I am excused for this because identity is too much of a complex and ever changing concept. As Florian Coulmas rightly explains:  “Individual identities are complex structures combining inherited features with various group memberships, loyalties, values, belief systems, and fashions. These structures adjust to changing circumstances and so does the concept of identity itself. Elements may be discarded or remixed, new ones added on occasion. Hence a definitive definition is not available”. Despite the lack of an all-encompassing definition (as explained, for example, by Aleks Krotoski and Ben Hammersley in Identity and Agency) there is a list of things ‘identity’ might refer to: the way one is recognized as an entity; how we define and express our self individually or collectively; the sum ownership of the tangible and intangible assets of the self;  and the sum of self-referential claims or claims about others made by a digital subject (a concern for computer science). Digital identity Related of course, but different from ‘identity’, ‘digital identity’ seems a little less complex in that it refers to ‘all of the above but in a digital format’. Or perhaps not.  According to Krotoski & Hammersley, digital identity can be defined as: “A set of data that acts as a unique reference to a specific object”, which “can be a person, a thing, a concept, a group, or any other definable entity”. Digital identity’s main role is authentication: verifying whether an entity is who (or what) it is believed to be, and worthy of trust. And in the case of digital identity this authentication is binary: either completely true or completely false. A digital identity relating to a person can be made up of a number of attributes (data) depending on what it is needed for, and could include one or more of: an email address, digital photos, usernames and passwords, biometric data, or any other information that can be accessed digitally (Yoti toolkit). Our email address, for example, can be our digital identity within a specific email system, but it can also work as the digital identity we have on another, unrelated service (Krotoski & Hammersley) (like another platform for which we use our email to sign in).  Your digital identity can be verified using documents or other data such as biometrics or identification credentials, which can confirm you are who you say you are, in legal terms. But not all of our digital identities need to be verified in this way, only those that might be used to access services from governments (e.g healthcare) and the private sector (e.g banking).   Online identity Then we have a third, and equally relevant concept: ‘online identity’: “While digital identity answers the question, ‘Are we sure that x is y?’, online identity continues the statement, ‘I, y, consist of a, b, and c’.” (Krotoski & Hammersley). Online identity relates closely to the offline definition most of us have of personal identity or self-identity: it is the expression of this self-identity as mediated by computers and the internet. And importantly, this expression necessitates editing, a process that is culturally and technologically constrained (or limited):  “Online identities are not limitless in their expressive abilities. Unlike the self-signals shared between strangers on the street, each identity marker on the web is proactively constructed using the tools available, and online identity is not without systems and structures that constrain the individual, both socially and technologically” (Krotoski & Hammersley). The use of a tool to build an online identity (for example, a profile on Facebook) reduces our ability to decide which parts of our online identity(ies) we want to express, and how we want to express them. The choices, and therefore agency, are really in the hands of the designers of the platforms; choices that are political and cultural. We do not have the control we are often told we have. The designers of online services directly define the way we build our online selves.   Digital identity and our fluid online identity As seen, digital identity is necessary to an online identity, but they are not the same:  “Digital identities are fixed and binary; online identities are fluid, and contain multitudes” (Krotoski & Hammersley). The social sciences have long considered an individual’s self-concept as an evolving process, in which we discard aspects that no longer fit us in a given context (Krotoski & Hammersley). This ability to include and discard, allowing our identities to evolve, is essential to what we call ‘agency’. The more constrained we are to do that, the less ‘agents’ we are. The problem is: “the nature of some contemporary constructions of digital identity (notably, for search or social networking applications) does not account for this evolution. Rather, it incorporates all aspects of the self (self-reported or algorithmically generated) and delivers it upon request”. Identities are treated as trackable, unchanged, stable. Thus the need to incorporate the nuances of our experiences into computer constructions of identity (Krotoski & Hammersley).  Such ‘nuance’ might prove even more vital during the processes of editing our online identities, and creating new digital identities, when looking for a job. Among vulnerable groups such editing might be crucial, as career/training paths are not the ‘traditionally expected college-graduate-school’ and discrimination takes place regarding issues such as where people live, where they went to school, what their technical qualifications are, and so on.  The word “Respect”, written by adults and young adults at CEPLA, also called Casa Caracol, a community center in Mar del Plata My narrative during interviews At the start of my interviews I provide many of these same definitions, but make them a little less formal: Identity is something complex, yet we all know what our identities are. We know they relate to things we cannot change (like the country or social group we were born into), but also to other things that can change, like our values and beliefs that change over time. There is sameness, but also difference. We are and are not our 5 year-old self. It is a complex concept we all need to grasp.  Digital identity is something rather different. Digital identities exist because we also live in a digital world. A digital identity is a set of data that defines a specific object: a person, a group or any other thing. This data, or digital identity, is only used to verify someone or something is who or what it says it is; the answer can only be yes or no. There are no in-betweens. When entering Facebook, for example, you are required to verify you are “Paty X” by entering your username (which is your email) and a password. So, in this case your digital identity on Facebook is made up of two attributes, your username and your password. If you enter the wrong password the system determines that you are not Paty X. Period.  Online identity, on the other hand, refers to our ‘fluid’ or changing identities: it is not about “are you or not who you say you are?”, but more of “yes, I am Paty and I am also this and that, extrovert and artist, activist and organizer, and I currently maintain a Facebook page about sharing tools we don’t use too often with our neighbours”. Our online identities are the expression – in the digital world – of our offline and nuanced identities.  So far, interviewees have added a lot more nuance to the digital identity and online identity definitions. This proves that providing simple and informal definitions can help set the stage for a discussion without competing against – or overshadowing – the interviewees’ own understandings. One example of such nuance refers to the fact many people share their digital devices with other people, often family members. More on this in future posts.  Lastly, just to mention: in order to compensate for the lack of in person clues or contextual information during the now-online interviews I am adding two research methods: photo/video/voice elicitation and story completion, which I will also describe in more detail in another post. 

9 min read

MarginalizedAadhaar: Digital identity in the time of COVID-19

This is the third field diary entry from Subhashish, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. His year-long research project is focused on the challenges and opportunities within marginalised groups most affected by Aadhaar, India’s national digital ID system. ***** Before Indian society had the chance to recover from the hardship of both a financial slowdown and the controversial amendment to the citizenship act, it got hit by COVID-19. Many marginalized communities were already struggling to survive poverty, hunger and systemic exclusions, and things have got even harder as life comes to a standstill thanks to social distancing and wider lockdown regulations.   At the time of writing, 2,293 Indians have died of COVID-19 and 22,454 have tested positive. 24 people, mostly migrant workers who were desperately trying to return to their own houses, were also reported to have died recently because of the lockdown. Most people died in an attempt to walk hundreds of kilometres, in hunger and illness, and some as a result of indiscriminate attacks.  Fingerprint-based authentication (as used by Aadhaar) would almost certainly lead to further spreading of COVID-19, and India’s Public Distribution System (our social welfare service) predominantly uses Aadhaar for authentication. The state of Kerala identified this risk early on and suspended the use of all biometric authentication systems. This, and all the other social, political and transactional risks linked to Aadhaar — thanks to COVID-19 — have put marginalized communities at much higher risk, and furthered calls for a revised look at the digital ID ecosystem. While migrant workers in the cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Surat desperately try to return back to their native homes, many struggle to get the COVID-19 relief and regular support of food grains and rations that they are entitled to – all because PDS is yet to be made universal to ensure an equitable public benefit.    Aadhaar and social services The use of Aadhaar-based authentication – or linking the use of Aadhaar with essential social services – makes exclusions more likely than ever. A 68-year-old disabled woman with missing fingers was denied from enrolling for Aadhaar which resulted in receiving no food grains/ration for 11 months. Another disabled woman was denied rations for other three years, and a five-member family, including an elderly coupled, have been in a similar situation for the past six months. Harshabati Kheti of Lachipur, Sonepur distt., Odisha was denied of Aadhaar first for not having fingers intact. She hasn’t received any food grains or other ration for 11 months, or #COVID19 relief. https://t.co/LXCZYwcyKo @Food_Odisha @rajaaswain @CMO_Odisha #MarginalizedAadhaar pic.twitter.com/W4sC2VduAO — Subhashish P. ସୁଭ (@subhapa) April 30, 2020 Nabrangpur, Odisha: ~100 people denied of food grains + ration due to errors in records, despite of having Ration Cards & Aadhaar. Includes an old couple + family of 5 w. no ration since 6 months and family of a disabled man who is waiting since 3 yrs.#MarginalizedAadhaar (1/n) pic.twitter.com/8CzOkSIsBY — Subhashish P. ସୁଭ (@subhapa) April 13, 2020 Right before the pandemic, India was experiencing a huge financial slowdown resulting in job cuts and price rises. There were also large-scale protests around the country against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), a controversial new amendment to the 1955 citizenship law that promises citizenship to some illegal migrants on the basis of their religious faiths, while denying Muslims immigrants and several other minorities that are excluded under the amended law. India is also in the middle of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an effort to identify and build a database of “legal citizens”. The initial NRC rollout in the state of Assam identified as “legal” 31 million people out of the 33 million total population while leaving 1.9 million, mostly Muslims, as stateless. The government has plans to implement NRC across the country. The fear of statelessness and another Rohingya-like situation led to nationwide protests and then mitigating acts by both the state and non-state as they tried to defend the CAA and NRC. More than 65 people have been killed in protests that lasted for over 100 days.   Liberty from a database Here lies the use of personal data at the center of everything — be it the identification of protesters who speak against the government, or identifying vehicles owned by Muslims from a government database for selective-targeting during a communal pogroms, or the identification of people who have traveled to a coronavirus-affected country. The government is reportedly in the process of developing a geo-fencing app that can alert local authorities if a person in COVID-19 quarantine or isolation attempts to ‘escape’, using the affected person’s cell tower location.  Attempts to deal with COVID-19 have also resulted in a provincial government agency sharing personal data — including legal names and complete addresses — of 19,240 individuals who were under home-isolation post-foreign travel. Lawyer Rahul Matthan cites the lack of appreciation of personal privacy by the government as a reason for this clear violation of privacy, a fundamental right granted by the Indian constitution. Aadhaar, India’s national biometric-based digital identity program, plays a key role in most mass-scale identification initiatives. A recent three-part investigation report reveals that the Indian government is planning to build an “all-encompassing, auto-updating, searchable database to track every aspect of the lives” of all 1.2 billion residents. The shift from Aadhaar being an identity in its initial design to a system for bettering public welfare to its use in mass surveillance is worrisome. India’s then finance minister Arun Jaitley even renamed the Aadhaar Bill of Indian constitution “Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act”. The civil rights of individuals can become compromised when a secural state – with a Hindu right-wing political party in power – requests Muslim Aadhaar-holders to prove their citizenship. Recent studies suggest that claims that Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA) reduces the leakage of grains and other resources are a myth. Findings have also highlighted that the use of Aadhaar adds an additional burden of 17% on beneficiaries, with 10% of genuine PDS holders denied their benefits because of false authentication errors. This has led to a huge number of exclusions. Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), a government scheme that also uses Aadhaar for a direct-to-bank-account transfer, has led to a failure of 690 million INR (9.08 million USD) worth of transactions. Apart from the authentication failures, cases of stolen fingerprint casts being used for fraud have also surfaced — these did not exist before Aadhaar-based authentications were rolled out on such a scale. Also, considering the uncertainty of a return of normality post-COVID, it might be wiser to avoid physical contact by using alternative methods of authentication — instead of fingerprint scanning where the forced use of Aadhaar for public welfare payments would be problematic. Many isolated indigenous communities might not have immunity to even the most common diseases and extra precautions need to be taken in case non-indigenous persons are involved in distribution of resources. Lack of access to emergency healthcare information in native languages also remains a huge obstacle.   MarginalizedAadhaar podcast In the first episode of my MaginalizedAadhaar podcast, rights activist and author Raghu Godavar discusses the systemic exclusions in the enrolment and use of Aadhaar. With help from Parsuram Harijan, Gori Keuta and Ratan Naik of the Taragan village of Nabarangpur dist., Odisha, India tell how they have been denied food grains and ration for months and years. And finally, human rights lawyer and researcher Usha Ramanathan dissects Aadhaar’s fundamental design to pinpoint the system issues with Aadhaar.    Further reading “The complex architecture of DBT transactions is resulting in ….” 29 Feb. 2020, https://kaarana.org/?p=79. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.  “Mortality from contact-related epidemics among indigenous ….” 10 Sep. 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4564847/. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.  “‘Data is the new oil, new gold,’ says PM Modi in Houston ….” 23 Sep. 2019, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/data-is-the-new-oil-new-gold-says-pm-modi-in-houston/story-SphHDPQadvF1dJRMXHCkwK.html. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020   Banner image credit: Corona crisis in Kolkata 14. Indrajit Das (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

7 min read