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TODAY’S TALK ON EDITORIALS CIVILS360

SEPTEMBER 9, 2017

All that data that Aadhaar captures

  • There is a common perception that the main privacy concern with Aadhaar is the confidentiality of the Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR). This is misleading for two reasons. One is that the CIDR is not supposed to be inaccessible. On the contrary, the Aadhaar Act 2016 puts in place a framework for sharing most of the CIDR information. The second reason is that the biggest danger, in any case, lies elsewhere.
  • To understand this, it helps to distinguish between three different types of private information: biometric information, identity information and personal information. The first two are formally defined in the Aadhaar Act, and protected to some extent. Aadhaar’s biggest threat to privacy, however, relates to the third type of information.
  • In the Aadhaar Act, biometric information essentially refers to photograph, fingerprints and iris scan, though it may also extend to “other biological attributes of an individual” specified by the UIDAI. The term “core biometric information” basically means biometric information minus photograph, but it can be modified once again at the discretion of the UIDAI.
  • Identity information has a wider scope. It includes biometric information but also a person’s Aadhaar number as well as the demographic characteristics that are collected at the time of Aadhaar enrolment, such as name, address, date of birth, phone number, and so on.
  • The term “personal information” (not used in the Act) can be understood in a broader sense, which includes not only identity information but also other information about a person, for instance where she travels, whom she talks to on the phone, how much she earns, what she buys, her Internet browsing history, and so on.
  • Coming back to privacy, one obvious concern is the confidentiality of whatever personal information an individual may not wish to be public or accessible to others. The Aadhaar Act puts in place some safeguards in this respect, but they are restricted to biometric and identity information.

Sharing identity details

  • The strongest safeguards in the Act relate to core biometric information. That part of the CIDR, where identity information is stored, is supposed to be inaccessible except for the purpose of biometric authentication. There is a view that, in practice, the biometric database is likely to be hacked sooner or later. Be that as it may, the UIDAI can at least be credited with trying to keep it safe, as it is bound to do under the Act.
  • That does not apply, however, to identity information as a whole. Far from protecting your identity information, the Aadhaar Act puts in place a framework to share it with “requesting entities”. The core of this framework lies in Section 8 of the Act, which deals with authentication. Section 8 underwent a radical change when the draft of the Act was revised. In the initial scheme of things, authentication involved nothing more than a Yes/No response to a query as to whether a person’s Aadhaar number matches her fingerprints (or possibly, other biometric or demographic attributes). In the final version of the Act, however, authentication also involves a possible sharing of identity information with the requesting entity. For instance, when you go through Aadhaar-based biometric authentication to buy a SIM card from a telecom company, the company typically gains access to your demographic characteristics from the CIDR. Even biometric information other than core biometric information (which means, as of now, photographs) can be shared with a requesting entity.
  • Quite likely, this little-noticed change in Section 8 has something to do with a growing realisation of the business opportunities associated with Aadhaar-enabled data harvesting. “Data is the new oil”, the latest motto among the champions of Aadhaar, was not part of the early discourse on unique identity — at least not the public discourse.
  • Section 8, of course, includes some safeguards against possible misuse of identity information. A requesting entity is supposed to use identity information only with your consent, and only for the purpose mentioned in the consent statement. But who reads the fine print of the terms and conditions before ticking or clicking a consent box?
  • There is another important loophole: the Aadhaar Act includes a blanket exemption from the safeguards applicable to biometric and identity information on “national security” grounds. Considering the elastic nature of the term, this effectively makes identity information accessible to the government without major restrictions.

Mining personal information

  • Having said this, the proliferation and possible misuse of identity information is only one of the privacy concerns associated with Aadhaar, and possibly not the main concern. A bigger danger is that Aadhaar is a tool of unprecedented power for mining and collating personal information. Further, there are few safeguards in the Aadhaar Act against this potential invasion of privacy.
  • An example may help. Suppose that producing your Aadhaar number (with or without biometric authentication) becomes mandatory for buying a railway ticket — not a far-fetched assumption. With computerised railway counters, this means that the government will have all the details of your railway journeys, from birth onwards. The government can do exactly what it likes with this personal information — the Aadhaar Act gives you no protection, since this is not “identity information”
  • By the same reasoning, if Aadhaar is made mandatory for SIM cards, the government will have access to your lifetime call records, and it will also be able to link your call records with your travel records. The chain, of course, can be extended to other “Aadhaar-enabled” databases accessible to the government — school records, income-tax records, pension records, and so on. Aadhaar enables the government to collect and collate all this personal information with virtually no restrictions.
  • Thus, Aadhaar is a tool of unprecedented power for the purpose of mining personal information. Nothing in the Aadhaar Act prevents the government from using Aadhaar to link different databases, or from extracting personal information from these databases. Indeed, many State governments (aside from the Central government) are already on the job, under the State Resident Data Hub (SRDH) project, which “integrates all the departmental databases and links them with Aadhaar number”, according to the SRDH websites. The Madhya Pradesh website goes further, and projects SRDH as “the single source of truth for the entire state” — nothing less. The door to state surveillance is wide open.
  • What about private agencies? Their access to multiple databases is more restricted, but some of them do have access to a fair amount of personal information from their own databases. To illustrate, Reliance Jio is in possession of identity information for more than 100 million Indians, harvested from the CIDR when they authenticate themselves to buy a Jio SIM card. This database, combined with the records of Jio applications (phone calls, messaging, entertainment, online purchases, and more) is a potential gold mine — a dream for “big data” analysts. It is not entirely clear what restrictions the Aadhaar Act imposes, in practice, on the use of this database.
  • In short, far from being “based on the premise that privacy is a fundamental right”, Aadhaar is the anti-thesis of the right to privacy. Perhaps further safeguards can be put in place, but Aadhaar’s fundamental power as a tool for mining personal information is bound to be hard to restrain. The very foundation of Aadhaar needs to be reconsidered in the light of the Supreme Court judgment.

Indicators that matter: on the quality of public healthcare

  • The deaths of more than 70 children in one hospital in Gorakhpur and 49 in Farrukhabad, both in Uttar Pradesh recently, reflect the appalling state of public health in India. However, it needs to be remembered that India’s public health care sector has been ailing for decades. According to the latest Global Burden of Disease Study, which ranks countries on the basis of a range of health indicators, India has the 154th rank, much below China, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Scant consideration

  • Though ‘health’ is a State subject, — implying that the primary responsibility of providing quality health services to the people lies with the States — States have been reducing their health-care spending efforts in relation to total government spending. In 2013-14, the per capita public expenditure on health in U.P. was ₹452. Such low spending cannot be expected to deliver much. The number of primary health centres, the first point of contact for patients in the rural areas of U.P. went down from 3,808 in 2002 to 3,497 in 2015. The gravity of the situation is understood better when we juxtapose this with the 25-30% increase in the State’s population during the same period. These statistics show that health has never been a political priority in the State.
  • The patterns of public expenditure on health show that the provisioning of curative care through hospitals received disproportionate policy significance, ignoring overwhelming evidence that it is preventive health care and public health actions (for example, to prevent infection by providing clean drinking water) that have brought down periodic episodes of infectious disease outbreaks or epidemics. thus, prolonging the lives of people significantly in industrialised nations and elsewhere.
  • Scientific discoveries, technological improvements that have occurred in the last century and government efforts to improve sanitation and hygiene, not only high and middle income countries but also many low income countries have successfully controlled infectious diseases.
  • Today, in those countries, very few parents ever experience the death of a child unlike in most Indian States where people live with the misery of seeing some of their children die due to preventable causes. The government’s lack of understanding of the importance of public health has played the most important part in U.P.’s health predicament.

Global instances

  • While the under-provisioning of health care including public health services continues in some States that were directly under the control of the British Raj, those that were once princely states such as Kerala and that had caught the attention of the world with their outstanding health achievements have not been providing enough resources to health since the late 1980s.
  • The prominent role of governments in health care goes back as far back as the 1880s when German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck established a national health-care system to gain political advantage over the Socialist Party. After World War II, most governments in Europe became extensively involved in health care. A notable example is the National Health Service, a publicly funded health-care system in the U.K., set up in 1948. Government health spending now accounts for 80-90% of total health expenditure in most countries of the European Union and North America; public expenditure contributes to less than 30% of the total health expenditure in India.
  • As public health-care provisioning becomes more limited and the quality of services deteriorates, people are left with no option but to seek services from private providers, knowing well that the end result could be financially ruinous. Every year, around 60 million people become impoverished through paying health-care bills in India. Worse, more than a fifth of people do not seek health care, despite being unwell, because of their inability to pay for it.
  • What can we learn from the global experience? The experience from other nations that have done relatively well in health suggests that political commitment to health is a prerequisite for improving the health scenario of any country. Thailand, Cuba or Costa Rica have achieved universal health care, although they have taken different routes. While Thailand may not be the best example to follow, it has some important lessons for India. For instance, Thailand has enacted a law to make quality health care a constitutionally guaranteed right. Unlike in India, where the Right to Education Act has been reduced to mere rhetoric, Thailand has undertaken structural reforms in the health sector to achieve the goals stated in the Health Act. Even before it started reforms to attain universal health coverage, it began massive investments to build public health facilities in rural areas. For about seven years, the Thai government channelised a greater amount of public resources to the rural areas than to in the urban places. Like Thailand, China, Ghana and other many low and middle income countries have also in recent years steadfastly augmented the public health-care system’s capacity through increased funding. Cuba did the same thing many decades ago. Health care is a right there and the government assumes the fiscal and administrative responsibility of ensuring access to free health care.

The Cuba story

  • The health indicators of Cuba are similar to that of developed countries. With an infant mortality rate of 4.2 per thousand births, this socialist country is among the top three performers in the world. But this was not the scenario five decades ago. In 1959, the infant mortality rate in rural areas was 100 per thousand live births and half of Cuba’s doctors and hospital beds were in Havana. The rural areas had all the problems that U.P. and other underdeveloped States in India still have. Besides poverty and mass illiteracy, undernutrition was rampant and health inequalities were pervasive. However, Cuba’s turn-around story is now acknowledged and its health-care system has become a model for other countries. This was made possible as the country’s leadership recognised the importance of public health, which essentially means addressing the social determinants of diseases (for example, improving the living conditions of the people) and developing a health-care system based on preventive medicine and not curative care.
  • The tragedies in Uttar Pradesh should be a clarion call for our policy makers. If we want the people of this country to enjoy a health status that is commensurate with that of their counterparts from other middle-income countries and in the region, not only should there be more resources available for health, but also the government’s approach towards health needs to be radically changed. Health needs to be integrated as a pillar of development and it must be recognised as a public good.

Nowhere people

  • India took extraordinary care to stay on Myanmar’s right side this week by resisting any show of sympathy to the Rohingya people. On his first bilateral visit to the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he shared the Myanmar government’s concerns about “extremist violence” in Rakhine state, which has seen unprecedented violence over the past fortnight. Meanwhile, at the World Parliamentary Forum on Sustainable Development, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan abstained from the Bali Declaration because of a reference to “violence in Rakhine state”. New Delhi has traditionally been wary of internationalising the internal affairs of its neighbours; on Myanmar, it has concerns about keeping the country from spinning back into the Chinese orbit.
  • But India must adopt a humane position when dealing with a refugee population that is stateless and has no place to call home. This week, when the matter of Rohingya refugees now in India came up for hearing in the Supreme Court, government counsel refused to guarantee they would not be deported. This was in line with the government’s indication to Parliament last month that all illegal immigrants, including the Rohingya, who number around 40,000, will be deported. The insensitivity of this plan is exposed by the unfolding crisis in Rakhine, where the Rohingya people had been living for generations.
  • The Rohingya have been fleeing, mostly on rickety boats, for years now. But this exodus has picked up pace since August 25, when an attack on police posts by an extremist Rohingya group invited sustained reprisal from the army and local Buddhist mobs. The UN estimates that about 270,000 people, more than a quarter of the entire Muslim Rohingya population in Rakhine, have fled since then, mostly to Bangladesh.
  • The Rohingya have been the ultimate nowhere people since 1982, when a Burmese law rendered them stateless, with the government arguing that they are Bengali. Violence has targeted them in phases, most notably beginning in 2012 when inter-religious conflict forced them out in the thousands. In 2014, the Burmese census refused to enumerate the Rohingya, giving them only the option to identify themselves as Bengali.
  • It is an irony that the period of Myanmar’s transition to democracy, that too on Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s watch, has coincided with the most heartless alienation of the Rohingya.
  • A UN report has called them victims of “crimes against humanity”, while Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has referred to the violence as “ethnic cleansing”. This backdrop should worry Delhi, not just because its official stance is casting it on the wrong side of the humane position, but also because its deportation plans are perceived as being drawn by the sectarian pulls of domestic politics. And as a regional power, India must answer the question: if it is driving out a stateless people, where does it hope to send them?