Innocent Dangers of a post-Aadhaar World

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You don’t need Aadhaar (yet) to view the sunset at Delhi’s Purana Qila. Pic: Imli Factory

It’s heartening that we are having a roll-up-the-sleeves debate on Aadhaar, with views, counter-views being shared in the courts, media and elsewhere.

For, whichever way this goes, history will record that India’s civil society made a spirited attempt to tackle disturbing issues that affect us all — the government’s open defiance of the highest court of this land; the tearing hurry to make a voluntary identification number mandatory; concerns around privacy, surveillance, and the relationship between an individual and the state.

Whether we like it or not, Aadhaar affects most of us — 99% of India’s adult population. That’s why we should be alert — even afraid. I am not getting into the wider issues: many excellent points of view and arguments can be found here.  I wanted to focus on a few specific points.

There are two, almost knee-jerk ripostes to any concerns being voiced about Aadhaar. One, don’t we put up so much about ourselves on social media? Aren’t we already exposed, smartphone location switched on, every conversation, message, photograph, diary entry in danger of being compromised? Indeed, if you’re having a sensitive conversation, keep your phone switched off. The Americans are listening — as are Indian intelligence agencies.

But remember, with your phone, you have an option. You can switch it off (more about that later). Aadhaar is different, and more powerful, because it has your bio-metric information. This information is unique to you — once you’ve signed up, you are part of a grid. Earlier, only criminals were fingerprinted, now everyone is. This information changes your relationship with the state in fundamental ways. In the popular perception, technology can never be “wrong”, you see. The machine cannot “lie”. (the challenge against the EVM is setting the stage for this debate in a post-truth world).

This brings us to the second reaction to Aadhaar. Many say they have nothing to fear, because they’re not in the wrong, they have nothing to hide, and so on. Alas, life has many shades of grey — you may even be partially in the wrong, but may need to take certain steps for self preservation before a due process of law.

Take a scenario: D wants to sell his property. After negotiations, D signs a contract with P, and takes an advance. Within days, D learns that P has a bad reputation in the property market; he decides to end the deal, and sends the cheque back to P. Meanwhile, P files an First Information Report (FIR), alleging breach of contract. The police asks D to report to the police station. It’s Friday evening. D doesn’t have anticipatory bail.

What should D do?

Should D show up at the police station, risk spending a weekend in police custody before he gets bail?

Depends. D may be in breach of contract, but he’s not yet proven guilty. Assuming that he’s not a proclaimed offender, D doesn’t deserve to spend a weekend in jail. All he wants is some time to present his point of view, legally. Typically, at this stage, D would switch off his phone and head out of town to stay at a friend’s place.

Now, how would this same scenario play out in a post-Aadhaar world? For one, if the police were serious about getting D into custody, they would know a lot about him, courtesy the folks at Aadhaar : bank accounts, all the phone numbers in his name, government-linked digital payment like BHIM and so on. D will not be able to book a railway ticket, or fly (assuming the move to made Aadhaar mandatory for flying domestically). Given the pace at which this government is  linking services to Aadhaar, D will be the proverbial “deer in the headlights”.

In short, D will find it tougher to stay incognito for a few days.

In many cases, particularly, those of stalking or marital spats, the onus of proof is on the accused. It could also be a complaint filed by a neighbor after a fight over parking. Or somebody just out to harass you with an FIR. Editors and journalists face it often, with motivated FIRs being filed on stories that have been published. The intent is to  trouble you. The legal system and police work in tandem here.

Obviously, in a post-Aadhaar world, it will get difficult to hide — even if you (in certain circumstances) need time to explain your point of view. The significance of being on the grid is that it is tough to get off it — even if you have legitimate reasons to do so.

Think about it.

(For the record, I don’t have Aadhaar)

 

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