“As it stands today, information about individuals that are given to companies, banks, governmental agencies and departments are held in ‘silos’, discrete towers which hold specific information provided for a specific purpose/service (Driving License, Voter ID Card, Ration Card.) In the alternative, this data could be organized into a central database.… Certain legal academics like Usha Ramanathan opine that the UID will serve to link these discrete silos, a process known as ‘convergence’, and therefore unleash the capability to profile an individual on the basis of personal data.” (Amba Uttara Kak and Swati Malik, NUJS Law Review, Oct-Dec 2010)
This fear has been quite effectively conveyed in internet chatter through a spoof on a pizza outlet, which goes something like this: a customer calls in to order seafood pizza, and the operator tells him that it is a bad idea as his medical records show high cholesterol and BP. The operator presumably has at her disposal his entire personal history, including his reading habits, medical records, credit history, driving habits, and so on!
Humor apart, if all of those hundreds of databases in the country, public and private, could be linked in the manner suggested, it would surely be a back-handed compliment to the capabilities of our bureaucrats and technologists. The reality, sadly, is that our governments have been unable to even eliminate duplicates and fakes within a single system such as a state’s PDS, let alone across multiple welfare schemes. It would be a huge step forward for them to use Aadhaar to clean individual schemes. But, dreamers as they are, some state e-governance programs are hoping that they can connect at least some of their key databases, such as old age/widow pension schemes, land records, and birth/death records. It would be a laudable accomplishment if they succeed in these efforts, given that every step of this ‘desirable convergence’ will not only face technical challenges, but will face even more formidable opposition from vested interests within the government, who too think that silos are better than convergence!
The role of Aadhaar in this vision is not merely technical, but political too -- given the strong support for the project from the Planning Commission and the political leadership in Delhi, we have a unique opportunity to see some of that dream come true.
“Convergence of information allows third parties, including private companies to utilize such information to harass person. A common example is the way private companies obtain access of personal details of individuals and pursue aggressive marketing strategies through phone and email in ways that intrude upon their privacy.” (ibid)
Now, this is what one could call ‘undesirable convergence.’ No one can deny the potential for such misuse of personal data; however, we need to keep three things in mind: 1. While private operators may indeed use Aadhaar numbers for their service delivery, there is little chance that they will have open and uncontrolled links to government databases; 2. Despite the enormous amounts of much more sensitive personal data already in the hands of mobile operators, nightmare scenarios of massive misuse of data to harass people has not come about; and 3. The recently enacted IT Rules of 2011 have tightened the obligation of private companies to safeguard private data and to adhere to international data privacy principles.
In the long run, this kind of ‘undesirable convergence’ can be mitigated only by enacting a strong and thoughtful national data privacy and protection regime, supplemented by vigilant civil libertarians and citizen consumer action groups. Please see our detailed article on “UID and Data Privacy” for further discussion on this.
An opportunity like the UID project, with such a highly motivated and eclectic group of professionals working hard to make it succeed in its pro-poor goals, does not knock twice. So let us not throw the baby out with the bath water by mixing up the good and bad sides of data convergence.