Sucheta Dalal :National UID: An Orwellian Odyssey
Sucheta Dalal

Click here for FREE MEMBERSHIP to Moneylife Foundation which entitles you to:
• Access to information on investment issues

• Invitations to attend free workshops on financial literacy
• Grievance redressal


You are here: Home » What's New » National UID: An Orwellian Odyssey
                       Previous           Next

National UID: An Orwellian Odyssey  

May 18, 2010

Cut to 2020. Is this how Big Brother is going to exploit the UID project?

The year is 2020. I walk down from my apartment at Domlur Layout, Bangalore to go for an evening's relaxation to the Metro Road (previously called M G Road). As I hail an auto rickshaw and pay the fare via my automated mobile cum payment card, I get a message on my mobile: "Thanks for using Balaji's Auto Service, the last time you travelled by auto was three days back, from Koramangala to your home in Domlur". I am bit puzzled as to how they know this, but I brush the thought away.


I get off at Metro Road and hang out at Cafe Matteo at the Metro station. Nice, cool air-conditioned (AC) cafe. Bangalore has become so hot—due to global warming I suppose—that an AC is a must. As I pay for my regular Americano coffee with skimmed milk by the side via my credit card, my mobile beeps—"Welcome; I see you have just arrived from Domlur; as per our records, the last time you had a similar coffee was a week back at a Jayanagar Coffee Day joint; and yes, while going back make sure you take an auto rickshaw outside Eva mall; our computerised time and traffic analysis shows that it is the fastest and cheapest way to go by auto to Domlur from Metro Road at this time of the day."


I am flabbergasted. How do they know all this? Things like, when I had a coffee last time. And it strikes me, partly due to my mind working overtime thanks to the just-imbibed caffeine. It must be DL—the "Documented Life" service.


A day back I received an SMS on my mobile asking whether I would like to be subscribed for a 30-day free trial for this service, and I had said yes out of curiosity.


Documented Life has a database of what everyone does. And there has been some noise that they infringe on peoples' privacy. To me, it seems like my freedom itself is taken away. Still, I think there must be a way out. I decide not to travel by auto anymore or use my credit card. But, as I start walking back to Domlur from Metro—the only way I think my freedom would be preserved is if I walk—I see that the six-lane elevated highway no more allows people to walk. So, maybe a bus might be fine, I think. But as I pay the conductor of the BTS (Bangalore Transport Service) bus via the special pass that BTS gives, I see a similar message on my mobile: "The last time you went back by bus to your house was a month back and you celebrated your bus travel by having a beer in Lakshmi Bar and Restaurant (LBR) at Domlur. How about doing that again today? We have specials for you."


"Riding on the UID database" said the footnote.


Aha! It all comes back to me now. I am convinced that the culprit for this loss of freedom and privacy is the unique identification (UID) project. The high-profile National UID project, which went on from 2009 to 2015 gave a unique ID to every resident in India.  The National UID Authority was established. It was claimed that it was particularly careful about privacy implications of the project. The UID database for instance was carefully chosen, and one could only query if a particular UID corresponding to a particular fingerprint was valid or not. Owing to privacy concerns, you couldn’t do anything else with the database. To begin with, no one other than the UID Authority could even create a database with a UID as one of the elements.


But as time passed, due to one reason or the other, all these protections fell through.

First of all, even though the UID was not mandatory for everyone, slowly as banks and other institutes started making UID mandatory for their service, it became necessary for everyone, at least in cities, to have the UID by default. Without the UID, one could not get into an auto rickshaw as payment cards were linked to the UID, one couldn’t own a mobile as mobiles were linked to the UID or one could not have credit cards or bank accounts as they were also linked to the UID.


So, the first protection against privacy violation—not to make UID compulsory—fell through this way.


Secondly, as the threat of terrorism started growing, linking information became a critical necessity. NATGRID, a home ministry project meant to tackle terrorism by co-relating various important databases was the first one to use the UID to link information across disparate databases. Also, it became necessary for banks and mobile companies to keep UID-related data.


Thirdly, as each financial institution had issued their service against a UID, they did have a UID-service mapping, so given a UID, they could map it to say their credit card in case of a credit card company, and the credit card could be further linked to the transactions.


Documented Life did the next thing that was logical. It paid companies and bought their databases of this mapping, and once it had a threshold of a number of companies participating, they could literally track everything that a person did. Not that before the UID days the above was not possible. Even before the UID days, mobile companies could track where you are at any moment by tracking your mobile location. But at least the certainty and genuineness of the data wasn’t there. One could always use a mobile, which was in a friend's name and put the trackers off. What the UID did was that it gave the stamp of certainty to the whole data, and that was the game changer. For instance, Documented Life has recently announced a deal with the Income Tax (I-T) authorities; one will not have to file I-T forms anymore; I-T would get automatically deducted from one's bank account as all income and all expenses can now be auto-tracked thanks to Documented Life's database.


Isn’t this exactly the 1984 scenario that Orwell predicted, albeit one that has come about a bit later? It also struck me why most of the Western countries shelved or limited their national UID projects. Sure, the Indian National UID authority had good intentions for the UID project. They claimed that government schemes would reach the poor as the poor have problems proving their identity. UID turned out to be a boon to the poor, but a bane to freedom.


But I am not the type who would give in so easily. I think there should be some way out to beat the system and regain my privacy.


I come home, and call my friend M. He always has brilliant ideas to solve any problem. I tell him, "We are losing our freedom and privacy; this is what happened; when I paid for the bus ticket, they said the last time when I travelled by bus I had a beer in such and such place, and they said you should do it now, and there are specials. Isn’t this an invasion on my freedom and privacy?"


"Samir," says M, "I know very well you are going to have a beer. They are in fact making it convenient for you by reminding you beforehand and offering you specials."


As I walk into LBR and sip the chilled beer, I am confused. Have I lost my freedom or have I gained convenience?  I ponder for some time. But, slowly clarity dawns on me. "Would it be any different if they had inserted a chip in my body?"


(Dr Samir Kelekar is founder-director of Teknotrends Software, Bengaluru)

-- Sucheta Dalal