Establishing Identity – the Unique Identification Number

Posted in Uncategorized by Nehaa on November 23, 2009

After the issue of photo-identity cards by the Election Commission in 1993,  followed by the issue of Multi-purpose identity cards in 2003, the latest in the process towards establishing the identity with a valid proof of every resident in the country is the Unique Identification Number; and thus, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was established in February 2009.

The Unique Identification Number (UID) is meant only as a proof of identity, and not as a proof or a guarantee of citizenship of India.  The purpose of devising such a mechanism was to achieve a sort of standardization in the identification process. Currently, in India, we have many  diverse sources of identity proof, the most commonly accepted ones being the PAN Card, Driving License, Passport, Ration Card, Voter ID Card.  The fact remains, that in order to procure any of these,  verification of identity is through other documents, most commonly the birth certificate or the school leaving certificate. While access to these may not be a problem for members of the middle and upper sections of the society,  a large section of the Indian population does not have access to these documents, simply because they do not have the access to the services that enable access to these documents. Therefore, if a person has never been to school, there is no school leaving certificate; and if his/her birth has never been registered, there is no record of that person being born at all,  thus creating loopholes in the process of identity verification.

According to Nandan Nilekani, this is exactly the problem that the UID seeks to address. In this set up, the purpose is to ensure that the enormous expenditure that the government undertakes in order to provide various benefits to the people, be it the NREGA,  benefits for people below the poverty line, etc., meets with its desired end, that is to say, the benefits reach the people that they are meant for, and not used by anyone else pretending to be the other person. This can arise only if there is a standard, accepted proof of identity, which is the objective of the UID. In order to simplify the process of identity, further mechanisms,  such as the absence of documentary proof for obtaining the UID, enlisting the help of NGOs in order to be able to grant the  UID to homeless persons, sex workers, and any other specific groups that these organizations might be working with.

While the concept of the UID might be well intended, a nagging fact that cannot be ignored is that similar systems have been tried in various nations, and have not been very successful, leading to debates and decisions to discontinue these schemes. As we speak about implementing something similar in India, concerns arise from a variety of sectors, most importantly the legal, technological and social, with a great deal of overlap in these areas

Technological concerns that need to be addressed (briefly) deal with the problem of sheer logistics. The idea is to maintain a Central Database which has basic details of the residents.  How is one database going to be able to handle records of over one billion people? Efforts have been made by the Income Tax Department, where they have had difficulties in handling the data of 3 million people. In such a scenario, a database of such magnitude raises great concerns  in terms of data security and data manipulation. What are the safeguards that have to be put in place in order to ensure that this data is not misused by the people who have access to it, and to ensure that access is restricted?

Nilekani and his team maintain that people will not be able to have direct access to anyone else’s data other than their own. Even accepting this argument, one cannot rule out the fact that the information might be misused at the stage of data collection by the agencies that collect the data.  Further concerns pertain to the very grey area of (nonexistent) privacy laws in India and protecting the identity of the person.  While privacy is a pressing issue that needs to be tackled, it is an issue that needs to be on a macro level, and not as one that is relevant to the UID alone. The information that is to be collected to prepare the UID Database is one of a very basic nature, including the name, address, sex, a photograph, the date of birth, and biometric information (for example a retina image) to establish the identity of a person and generate a random ID number. We give out (quite liberally at that) this information (and a whole lot more) on a daily basis, for something as everyday as a telephone connection or a magazine subscription, or even a club membership. Our personal information is quite readily available to anyone who cares to look. Why then, the added pressure of privacy on the UID Database? It largely stems from the fact that the data is centrally located, and that there is a heavily divided collection agency system, with banks, state governments, the PDS, LIC etc. all going to be a part of it.  Another area of concern includes the nature and the necessity of the UID, a fundamental problem that first needs to be addressed. From the stance of the UIDA, it is clear that obtaining this number is voluntary. However, in the same vein, they also state that other agencies such as banks and the NREGA might make this number a prerequisite to avail the facilities attached with these agencies, thus in effect, making it mandatory.

As expected with any new scheme proposed, especially where technology  of mammoth proportions is applicable, there are bound to be concerns and skepticism about the working and success of this scheme.   A large limitation is the limited availability of information and research regarding this project in India, since it is in the nascent stage.  At the end of the day, every proposal is a double edged sword. The onus is on us to attempt to balance out the negatives with the positives. This scheme is being viewed as one that would open many more doors, and enable access to other schemes of the government, access to basic facilities that are basic rights of citizens, and are being denied and misused due to inability to establish something as fundamental as identity. Realistically speaking, the poor person doesn’t really care about Constitutional issues that might arise from allocating the UID, and to be honest, neither does the common middle class individual. If a scheme comes along that is going to make their lives that much easier, without causing tangible and visible harm, these people are going to be very interested. That’s not to say that we discount the importance of issues of Privacy laws, technology laws, the Constitution etc. What is needed is continued questioning and research on the applicability of the UID, but in the same breath, it would be incorrect, and quite foolish at that do write this off as something that is plagued with too many concerns in order to be successful. The onus instead, should be on looking at the merits of this project, and attempting to find solutions to problems that might arise singularly from this, and larger issues that it flags off (such as privacy laws in India).

The UID, at its very core, is a hard hitting concept that has the potential to change and simplify  to a great extent our understanding and construct of identity


5 Responses

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  1. Vora said, on November 24, 2009 at 5:32 pm


    I have very limited knowledge about this entire system, and personally believe that if it works, it is going to be a boon for the Indian people. It is about time that every person in India got identified and registered in the eyes of the government, and I also believe that a lot of problems, besides giving benefits to the people below poverty line for whom the benefits are meant, will be solved,, such as the accountability of the people who don’t pay their taxes fully, or omit paying them altogether. Hopefully, there is a provision for remedying this problem too.
    I also read in one of the articles tackling with the issue, was the fact that the data will be collected not only based on a person’s birth certificate, or school leaving, but also the Ration Card issued, passport, driver’s licence etc. I will try to confirm the veracity of my statement, if need be, but as far as my knowledge goes, currently, the process of collecting information from these departments is going on. That way, they say, very few people will be left out. And it is true too. For the smallest of things like a gas connexion, to a passport, a person in India requires certain basic documents, like a ration card or voter’s ID. So the problem of missing out persons, or gathering this basic data may not be difficult in terms of the lack of information, maybe just logistical difficulties, or the integration of the information, more than the lack of it. Also, the problem of false information furnished by persons, especially from the poorer background. That would be a serious issue they would have to tackle.
    I have no doubts about Nilekani’s capability to produce technology in mammoth proportions. However, as you rightly pointed out, the threat of hacking the information from the UID remains, or to put it in simpler words, stealing an identity, and hence the security issue. Plans are of doing it by way of a biometric system. I personally have no idea what it means, but considering the ability of persons to “handling” technology “in the way they want”, hopefully, the chip or system they are using would be “hack-free”.
    Another problem I believe is the fact of reliance on the UID. If te chance of identity-stealing is possible, and the only working document is the UID for a lot of things, like procuring a passport, etc. then it could prove to be a problem for the citizens.
    Also, again, my impression is that this system is modelled along the lines of such a system adopted by several countries, particularly the United States. I would object to the statement made about the fact that the system has been unsuccessful, as the system in the United States, I believe, has been very successful. However, we have to keep in mind that ours is a country of 1 billion people, so there the difficulty might be in the implementation of this system, if they cross the first hurdle of devising the technology for it.
    Let’s hope that this works out.

  2. Sameer Boray said, on November 24, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Hey… this identification thing that the govt is trying to pursue might be a boon for the Indian people, however there are some negative implications.Even at first i thought it was great idea but today i started interning at this NGO in Bangalore called Environment support group(ESG). And they are actually against providing id cards to citizens because they believe that the govt might be choosy while giving these ids.For example, the Ktaka govt is planning to give ids for those who use parks(thereby restricting the number of park goers)….this is just the other side to the debate…i still think its good that the entire nation would have a unique ID card..provided the govt doesnt misuse its functions such as with the case in Karnataka

  3. Nehaa said, on November 25, 2009 at 10:35 am

    just to clear some things up….

    the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) is not going to be issuing ID cards.. they just issue a number… at a lower level, you have what are known as Registrars, and it is up to these Registrars as to whether or not they want to issue any card. That’s just a basic clarification.

    Secondly, there is no question of the government being choosy while issuing cards. The Government per se doesn’t feature in the system. The UIDAI is going to be a seperate body established by legislation, demarcating its powers and functions. It stands as an independent body.

    The question of technology being fool-proof however is very debatable. Members of the core committee of the UID itself sound iffy about it, and make no bones of the fact that a lot of work is still necessary, and it is going to be a project of mammoth proportions. Further, the system in the United States is slightly different from that in India. The success there is not questioned, but the difference lies in sheer numbers of the population. In addition to that, there is a far greater number of nations where an effort of this sought has met with very limited success, (if any), and has often not met with the desired end that the Government set out to achieve. Read up on Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, a couple of the African nations….

  4. Mika said, on December 1, 2009 at 11:08 am

    access to the benefits of employment, housing, loan and medical service schemes for the marginalised sections is not hindered entirely by the lack of a unique ID for its beneficiaries. there are so many other issues that plagues the system, the biggest being that of middle-men who eat up the benefits before they reach the ones who need them. one horrifying instance is of who doctors in fact use the free medical supplies meant for the poor, in their private medical practice.

    how will UID get around this issue?
    just a thought.

  5. Gautam said, on December 7, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    my point is that while arguing against ‘privacy considerations’ of the UID Cards, we absolutely have to consider the countervailing circumstances of security, which I believe is a very vital purpose that this scheme will serve.
    by providing such cards to the poor, to a great extent it may very well be that our government plans to issue every citizen with some kind of identification- this in itself is an immense secutiry check.

    the point is then if the extent of invasion of privacy is balanced out by a)safeguards against abuse, b) the need for better security, and c) the added benefits of better implementation of schemes that nehaa has pointed out.

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