A Parliamentary Standing Committee report on Finance has detailed out significant issues with the way India’s Unique Identity project was conceptualized and executed, stating that there was no clear purpose, lacked proper study before being approved, conflicted with existing initiatives, had issues related to privacy, circumvented Parliament, among other issues. It has recommended, on finding that the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 in its present form unacceptable, that the data collected so far be transferred to the National Population Register, and the government reconsider and review the UID scheme and bring forth a fresh legislation before Parliament. With this, the UID project, which might have addressed the high cost of Know Your Customer verification, risks delays and perhaps even cancellation. The observations of the Standing Committee:

1. Circumvention of Parliament: That the clearance came from the Ministry of Law & Justice for issuing aadhaar numbers, while the Bill is pending passing by Parliament, “on the ground that powers of the Executive are co-extensive with the legislative power of the Government and that the Government is not debarred from exercising its Executive power in the areas which are not regulated by the legislation”. The committee has called the governments action as unethical. This issue was raised by Rajya Sabha MP Justice Dr. M. Rama Jois. Dr. Usha Ramanathan points out “It is a plain misconception to think that the executive can do what it pleases, including in relation to infringing constitutional rights and protections for the reason that Parliament and legislatures have the power to make law on the subject.”

2. Residents, not Citizens: Given issues of illegal immigration and infiltration, the committee is “surprised” that the bill proposes to entitle residents and not just citizens an aadhaar number.

3. Directionless, no clarity of purpose, hasty: The committee also points out that the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) failed to take a concrete decision on: (a) identifying the focused purpose of the resident identity database; (b) methodology of collection of data; (c) removing the overlapping between the UID scheme and National Population Register; (d) conferring of statutory authority to the UIDAI since its inception; (e) structure and functioning of the UIDAI; (f) entrusting the collection of data and issue of unique identification number and national identification number to a single authority instead of the present UIDAI and its reconciliation with National Registration Authority.

In addition, “The Committee note that the Ministry of Planning have admitted that (a) no committee has been constituted to study the financial implications of the UID scheme; and (b) comparative costs of the aadhaar number and various existing ID documents are also not available. The Committee also notes that Detailed Project Report (DPR) of the UID Scheme has been done much later in April, 2011. The Committee thus strongly disapprove of the hasty manner in which the UID scheme has been approved.”

4. Privacy: “The collection of biometric information and its linkage with personal information of individuals without amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955 as well as the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, appears to be beyond the scope of subordinate legislation, which needs to be examined in detail by Parliament”. In addition “In the absence of data protection legislation, it would be difficult to deal with the issues like access and misuse of personal information, surveillance, profiling, linking and matching of data bases and securing confidentiality of information etc.” The law is at a draft stage, and the UIDAI began collecting data without protections being in place.

5. Multiple Identity Proofs: “Continuance of various existing forms of identity and the requirement of furnishing, other documents. for proof of address, even after issue of aadhaar number, would render the claim made by the Ministry that aadhaar number is to be used as a general proof of identity and proof of address meaningless” “In addition to aadhaar numbers being issued by the UIDAI, the issuance of smart cards containing information of the individuals by the registrars is not only a duplication but also leads to ID fraud as prevalent in some countries”

6. Benefit? It’s worth noting that even if the identity is established, the UIDAI will not have information on the statistical information related to the individual (rural, semi-urban and urban areas, persons with disabilities etc), and that database will have to be prepared separately by government agencies. Dr. Reetika Khera, an Expert, points out in comments that exclusion is more on account of poor coverage of government schemes.

7. Technological issues: estimated failure of biometrics is expected to be as high as 15% due to a large chunk of population being dependent on manual labour. “The Committee finds that the scheme is full of uncertainty in technology as the complex scheme is built up on untested, unreliable technology and several assumptions. Further, despite adverse observations by the UIDAI’s Biometrics Standards Committee on error rates of biometrics, the UIDAI is collecting the biometric information. It is also not known as to whether the proof of concept studies and assessment studies undertaken by the UIDAI have explored the possibilities of maintaining accuracy to a large level of enrolment of 1.2 billion people.”

8. Issues with other government departments: The Ministry of Finance (Department of Expenditure) pointed out that “lack of coordination is leading to duplication of efforts and expenditure among at least six agencies collecting information (NPR, MGNREGS, BPL census, UIDAI, RSBY and Bank Smart Cards)”; Ministry of Home Affairs are stated to have raised serious security concern over the efficacy of introducer system, involvement of private agencies in a large scale in the scheme which may become a threat to national security; National Informatics Centre (NIC) have pointed out that the issues relating to privacy and security of UID data could be better handled by storing in a Government data centre; Involvement of several nodal appraising agencies which may work at cross-purpose; and that several Government agencies are collecting biometric(s) information in the name of different schemes.

9. Voluntary? Reliable? Comprehensiveness? “The Committee are also unhappy to observe that the UID scheme lacks clarity on many issues such as even the basic purpose of issuing ‘aadhaar’ number”. It also points out that while the claim is that it is voluntary, there is apprehension that services or benefits including food entitlements would be denied in case people do not have aadhaar number. There is also concern that beneficiaries may not have been correctly identified, and the present problem of proper identification would persist, and if the government doesn’t give further mandate, beyond the coverage of 200 million, the whole exercise would become futile.

10. Verification & National Security: “The Committee feel that entrusting the responsibility of verification of information of individuals to the registrars to ensure that only genuine residents get enrolled into the system may have far reaching consequences for national security. Given the limitation of any mechanism such as a security audit by an appropriate agency that would be setup for verifying the information etc., it is not sure as to whether complete verification of information of all aadhaar number holders is practically feasible; and whether it would deliver the intended results without compromising national security. As the National Identity Cards to citizens of India are proposed to be issued on the basis of aadhaar numbers, the possibility of possession of aadhaar numbers by illegal residents through false affidavits / introducer system cannot be ruled out.

11. Registration issues: “the Ministry of Home Affairs have alleged that some of the registrars have not adhered to the laid down procedures under UIDAI which renders the Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) signed between the UIDAI and the registrars meaningless; and it compromises the security and confidentiality of information of aadhaar number holders. Even, according to the latest media reports, controversies between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the UIDAI over issues such as the manner and processes followed by the UIDAI, duplication of efforts between NPR and aadhaar, and security of data still remain unresolved.”

Download the complete report here, courtesy PRS Legislative