According to an analysis of government data by Reetika Khera, a professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, millions of people have missed out on government benefits because of Aadhaar. In some cases, that’s because those who are elderly or disabled are unable to walk to the distribution sites to verify their identities. Others, who do manual labor, find that their fingerprints are too weathered from years of physical exertion to scan correctly, and so are denied their food rations.
Nikhil Dey, one of the founders of the grassroots organization Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, also studied the government’s data. He found that approximately 1 million people in the state of Rajasthan had been unfairly dropped from the government lists for food subsidies due to Aadhaar, and more than 3 million were unable to collect their designated grain allocations. In one district alone, Dey says, 1,350 out of approximately 2,900 people marked “dead” or “duplicate” were actually neither, but lost access to their pensions anyway.
Despite these implementation challenges, the scariest parts about the program for privacy advocates are its ubiquity and lax security. According to the technology engineer Anand Venkatanarayanan, when biometric information is used to access a service via Aadhaar, such as purchasing a new cell phone, the service provider receives that person’s demographic data (name, address, phone number), and the government receives the metadata—specifically, the date and time of the transaction, the form of identification used, and the company with which the transaction was carried out. That information can paint a fuzzy but intimate long-term picture of a person’s life, and raises concerns about both government surveillance and private-sector abuse.
There is already ample evidence of misuse. High-profile examples from the past several months have dominated news cycles: 210 government agencies published full names, addresses, and Aadhaar numbers of welfare beneficiaries; 120 million users’ Aadhaar information appears to have been leaked from the telecommunications company Reliance Jio (the company claimed the data was inauthentic); bank-account and Aadhaar details of more than 100 million people were disclosed through certain open-government portals; the government’s e-hospital database was hacked to access confidential Aadhaar information.
These disclosures may be most damaging for those who are already vulnerable. Apar Gupta, a lawyer on the team that challenged Aadhaar before the Supreme Court, is particularly concerned about many Dalits (previously the “untouchables” in the caste system) and migrant laborers who work as manual scavengers, entering sewers without protection to clean them by hand. It’s a dangerous occupation with a high fatality rate, and it can also bring immense social stigma. Gupta worries that Aadhaar will permanently stigmatize these individuals by allowing future employers, schools, banks, and new acquaintances to view their database information and judge them based on their socioeconomic standing. Social mobility in India could become even more difficult. So could hiding a pregnancy or a gender-reassignment surgery, or failing the eighth grade. In many of the objections raised about Aadhaar, there’s a kernel of fear that the program could turn a person’s identity into a prison.