If you’re an Indian citizen, chances are you’re well-acquainted with a government program that scans people’s fingerprints and irises and uploads the data to a federal database. If you don’t comply, you risk losing the ability to pay your taxes, collect welfare money, and access other government assistance programs.
And if you’re unlucky, you might even lose the ability to stay private, as hackers could use the data to trace your phone calls, messages, and physical location.
This is the reality for India’s 1.3 billion people, who since 2009 have been asked to comply with an ID-collection system the government bills as voluntary, but only if people don’t mind forgoing basic civic entitlements, the Los Angles Times reports. The program, known as Aadhaar, or “foundation” in Hindi, seeks to log every person’s identity using biometric data collected at various “enrollment agencies” scattered around the country — primarily in an effort to cut down on instances of fraud and counterfeiting.
Over the last eight years, the government has moved a growing number of transactions to the Aadhaar bucket. Most recently, it said people could file their income taxes only if they had first registered with Aadhaar, Hindstan Times reports.
Similar to criticisms raised in the US over voter ID laws, critics of Aadhaar worry what will happen to India’s rural poor if they can’t visit an enrollment center to join.
Aadhaar’s proponents say the system actually makes life more convenient for Indian citizens. Historically, people have needed a stack of documents — bills, ID cards, tax forms — to prove their identity. Aadhaar replaces all those with one quick thumb scan. Instantly, the bank teller knows you’re who you say you are, and your pockets remain as empty as ever.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi views Aadhaar as part his ongoing mission to upgrade India’s technology.
On November 8, Modi issued a ban on 86% of Indian paper currency — a ban that took effect just four hours later — over fears that most of the currency was earned illegally or used for illicit means. He called it “black money,” and gave Indians until December 30 to trade in their old notes for new ones. The country has been holding a massive recurring lottery ever since to entice people to join a new electronic system, which lets people pay via digital ID badges.
“Our objective is to make digital payments a huge mass movement in this country,” Amitabh Kant, CEO of the state-run think tank NITI Aayog, told CNN in December 2016, when the lottery launched.
Whether Aadhaar ends up being labelled a success likely depends on politics. India’s government insists the program adds greater accountability to the many social services it oversees. But critics argue those goals are better served through less intrusive means, such as reforming welfare programs.
An Indian think tank, for instance, recently found personal data of 135 million people is available on unsecure websites. If an opportunistic hacker were to grab that data for nefarious means, in theory they could use it to pose as whomever they wanted.
As one member of the think tank told the LA Times, stolen credit cards can be replaced. Biometric data is forever.
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