What’s in an ID?


Far & Near column in the Hindustan Times (published 4 May, 2017)

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare once asked of roses. The 21st century version of this thorny question is: “What’s in an ID?” With great leaps in digital and biometric technology, the possibility that all individuals can be “known” by states and other institutions has becoming tantalisingly real. Until the coalescence of nation-states in the early 20th century, most people didn’t have ID cards of any kind. Now with over one billion people registered for Aadhaar numbers, India boasts the largest biometric database in the world.

Though wrapped in often opaque and cumbersome legalese, the debate over Aadhaar at the Supreme Court in the past week asks one of the most important questions of our time. In the age of big data, how much should the state know about individuals? It is a classic duel of two rival imperatives: The desire to expand the capacities of the State against the fear of the State developing illiberal powers over individuals.

I have a US green card, an ID loaded with biometric information that also allows me to live and work in the United States. I’ve willingly made the bargain of surrendering my bodily data for the purpose of residing in a country. At the same time, here in the United States, citizens are not obliged to possess any single form of identification. The Social Security Number, the unique identifying number most equivalent to Aadhaar, is not connected to a biometric data or even a photograph.

There is an admirable reluctance in much of the West to grant too much to the State. In Britain, a plan to require ID cards for British citizens and residents was scrapped in 2010 in large part because it threatened to erode civil liberties. Many western countries also have legal protections for privacy that don’t exist in India.

The United States and Britain are much more robust states than India, with far greater and more sophisticated capacities to identify (and therefore tax) the people within their borders. The Aadhaar card is an attempt to strengthen the Indian State, a shortcut to circumvent the incremental process of institution-building and social development that has enabled wide-scale tax collection in the West.

Proponents of Aadhaar insist that the card will allow the poor easier access to services and benefits. An ID card can certainly be an empowering tool. In New York City, where I live, hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants form an inextricable part of the life of the city. A unique form of municipal identification called NYC ID allows them access to basic city services, a way to open bank accounts, to enter public buildings, and to report incidents to the police.

But after the election of Donald Trump, who pledged to deport millions of undocumented migrants, the NYC ID became a liability. If the Trump administration got access to that database, it would be more able to round up many New Yorkers. The city is no longer keeping personal information associated with new NYC IDs and will delete its existing database if the federal government comes knocking.

Governments should earn our trust, not demand it. As individuals living in ostensibly liberal, democratic states, it is our right and obligation to be sceptical. Big data exponentially increases the knowledge and power of the State, but no amount of buzzword-strewn techno-optimism should extract our complete confidence.

Without serious privacy protections, we should be wary of these efforts to make all people known and knowable. They remain ripe for abuse and error (already, lakhs of Aadhaar numbers have been accidentally leaked). Aadhaar will not only grant the State an “electronic leash” on citizens, but also allow corporations to build invasive financial profiles of people’s habits and histories. Why should we either repose faith in private sector whose ultimate interest is its own well-being, or surrender so much trust to state institutions with long traditions of incompetence?


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