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Access Now report holds up poster child Aadhaar as ‘Big ID’ bugbear

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A legal vacuum and vulnerable population allowed the creation of the world’s largest biometric digital ID project and built a myth which could be used by an entire industry to sell similar systems and dreams elsewhere, a new report argues.

India’s Aadhaar biometric ID program is presented as a ‘cautionary tale’ for all the ills of ‘Big ID’ and its growing number of digital ID projects around the world in a new and in-depth report by campaign group Access Now.

Busting the Dangerous Myths of Big ID Programs: Cautionary Lessons from India’ attempts to knock the Unique Identification Authority of India project from its pedestal to ask why a digital ID is required in the first place and list what is wrong with “these centralized, ubiquitous, data-heavy forms of digital identification.”

The report, part of the #WhyID campaign which challenges the need for digital ID and accuses its proponents of ulterior motives, positions big digital ID projects as sold as a mythical “silver bullet” to tackle long to-do lists such as increasing the number of people registered for ID, preventing fraud, fighting crime and bringing efficiencies to public services – forming an irresistible cure-all for governments anywhere. This report creates the idea of “Big ID,” seemingly analogous to Big Tech – a faceless and opportunistic sector – but the examples presented are of bad ID implementations.

“Far too often, these systems overpromise and underdeliver, without ever presenting evidence that these tools will actually be effective at meeting people’s needs, and put millions of people’s rights at risk in the process,” states the report.

“Big ID systems often promise a technological solution for a political problem,” states the report, which encapsulates its many points around the lack of a clear reason as to why a digital ID system is necessary and who actually benefits. It could also be argued that poor implementation of ID systems and subsequent misuse and abuse by governments are where many of the most egregious problems stated stem from. Or that certain political problems and government approaches make digital ID schemes highly appealing tools for regime maintenance. This may be the chicken and the egg territory, but it is worth noting that there is very little discussion and evidence of lobbying activities in the report.

But even without a coherent sense of what “Big ID” is beyond large projects, or how it operates, the case study purports to present a damning investigation into the problems Aadhaar has caused for the people it was supposed to serve.

Aadhaar as a problematic system at home, and increasingly abroad

The report goes back to the beginning of the Aadhaar project when it was presented in part by private software developers and without evidence. It suggests that Aadhaar was an opportunity for software to become ubiquitous, rather than introduce a robust ID system. The digital ID system was created by executive order and so existed in a legal vacuum until the Aadhaar Act was passed in 2016 (and India still does not have a data protection law).

Private companies with enrolment targets were appointed for registrations, with no checks for the accuracy of the initial document. It was started as an experiment that has gone on to be spun as a success, Access Now posits.

The full report – or a succinct condensed version on the Access Now site – challenges what the group says are widely-accepted myths: “This myth-busting exercise is a summary of these refutations and is intended to serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when corporations, international agencies, and governments pushing for Big ID are not questioned.”

The Supreme Court of India ruled that the project posed a disproportionate risk to the fundamental right to privacy and had insufficient safeguards, yet the project is still being hailed as the “gold standard,” states the report. And so it breaks down the overall alleged fantasy into a dozen myths used to lobby for “Big ID” programs and refutes each one in turn:

That Big ID is needed to give people a legal identity; that it empowers people; that it does not create a surveillance state; it is needed to reform the welfare state; it brings efficiency; it enables transparency; it is neither coercive nor mandatory; that establishing the uniqueness of individuals is a crucial need that only Big ID can fulfil; that it is needed for financial inclusion; that biometric verification is necessary, safe, and reliable; that big ID systems ensure that your personal information is safe and that it is a reliable tool for national security.

The section on biometrics claims that because biometrics are probabilistic, “they are not reliable.” Access Now goes on to suggest photo ID checks, presumably meaning manual ones, passwords, and one-time passwords (OTPs) as alternative methods of authentication. The report does not address the lack of compliance of these authentication methods with international standards for money transfers, such as in anti-money laundering (AML) checks.

Several pages of examples and research are presented to counter the arguments of Big ID, the assumptions held by the humanitarian sector, the easy reasons governments can use to justify their own projects. The report also suggests that similar ‘big ID’ systems have since been problematic elsewhere in the world.

Ultimately, the report claims that not only were India’s two main objectives for Aadhaar – to enable efficient, transparent, secure digital transactions and remove fraud from welfare – not met, but Aadhaar’s impact on welfare has been disastrous and even fatal, and that the cost of providing services increased for beneficiaries.

Access Now has also recently released reports on the ID situations in Mexico and Afghanistan as part of the #WhyID campaign of civil society groups which go to the heart of the issues of identity schemes.

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