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2016-04-01 06:32:42

‘People of South Asian countries are subjected to slavery by mass biometric surveillance like Aadhaar’

In order to ponder light on various aspects of mass biometric identification projects in South Asian countries, a Press Conference on “Are Aadhaar like biometric identification projects in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan legitimate?” was organized here at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia, New Delhi.

On Wednesday many eminent personalities shared their views with the media included P D T Achary, former Secretary General, Lok Sabha, Dr Usha Ramanathan, noted jurist, Dr. M Vijayanunni, former Registrar General and Census Commissioner and Dr Gopal Krishna of Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties (CFCL). 

The Press Conference was held even as the order of Chief Justice of India headed by 5 Judge Bench in the Aadhaar matter awaits compliance and High Court Division of Bangladesh’s Supreme Court is also seized with a matter related to biometric identification project. In a related development a Panel of Nepal’s Public Accounts Committee is examining the issues related to biometric data based Voter ID project. 

In the matter of Aadhaar Act, 2006, P D T Achary, former Secretary General, Lok Sabha said that it “comes under the category of financial bills under Article 117” and not under the category of Money Bill. He said, “Article 110(3) confirms finality on the speaker’s decision on the question of whether a bill is a money bill. But this constitutional provision cannot be seen as a convenient tool to deal with an inconvenient second chamber.” 

He said that Supreme Court will have to examine whether Lok Sabha has the competence and power to expose people to grave risks. Speakers’ power is not absolute under the Constitution of India. It can be challenged in a Court of law. 

In his statement Dr. M Vijayanunni, former Registrar General and Census Commissioner and former Chief Secretary of Government of West Bengal said, “China, which is comparable to India in terms of size and diversity of population, abandoned its universal ID system midway in the face of insurmountable problems encountered during its implementation, despite the supposed advantage of their totalitarian system in pushing through such a humongous but ill-advised project.” 

He also stated, “The real pressure for continuance of the scheme will be from the police and secret surveillance systems to pry into the privacy of everyone which gives them unlimited powers over the lives of helpless individuals and enjoy unchallenged supremacy in the days to come. That will sound the death-knell of freedom and democracy.”

Dr Usha Ramanathan, a jurist said, “Biometrics, unlike passwords or pin numbers, cannot be replaced. What is a person supposed to do if their biometrics get compromised? This is a risk that is being foisted on the people, and no one else is willing to accept liability for the harm and loss that this may cause.” She also said, “in making biometrics compulsory for the poor, the poor are being told that they do not have any interest in privacy, and that they should only care about the money they may get from the government or the food that may be provided. This reduction of citizenship of the poor person to a rightless welfare recipient is itself unconstitutional.” 

She further stated, “This project has made it necessary to remind the governments that the Constitution is not about the power of the state over the people. It is about the limits of state power.” 

Col. Mathew Thomas, a defense scientist and a petitioner before the Supreme Court of India against Aadhaar said, “Putting the biometric and demographic data of all Armed Forces personnel into a database, which is accessed by foreign private companies, hands over the entire deployment of the Nations Defenses to foreigners. I think that UID is more dangerous than Masood Azhar. He can at best try a terror strike. UID makes our nation subservient to a foreign power. It takes away our freedom. Is there anti-nationalism that is worse than handing over the entire biometric and demographic data of the Nation to private foreign contractors and hiding the fact from us?”

“The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance has repeatedly said that UID is a threat to national security. The danger to national security is not only from illegal immigrants entering UID database, but from the foreign private companies who are providing biometric technology to UIDAI. These foreign firms were founded by former CIA and FBI officials and are contractors to US intelligence agents. Clauses 15.1 of Annexure ‘A’ and 3.1 ‘B’ of the contract of UIDAI with M/s L 1 Identity Solutions Operating Company, a foreign company, provide it access to ALL personal data in the UID database and the use, transfer, processing and linking of the data with personal data of specific individuals”, he added.

“India and Pakistan are two countries which are using the same foreign private companies for biometric technology for setting national databases – UID in India and NADRA in Pakistan. No greater stupidity can ever be imagined. With this India will not just be “re-booted”, it will be booted (kicked) into a vassal state of a foreign power along with its neighbor, Pakistan,” he strongly contended.

Dr Gopal Krishna of Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties (CFCL) said, following the footprints of Pakistan, Government of India set up Unique Identification Authority (UIDAI) of India in January 2009 for biometric identification of Indian residents. The transnational companies like Ernst & Young. L1 Identities Solution, Safran and Accenture are involved in it. Ironically, these companies are taking the personal sensitive information for “seven years” and Government is paying for it. Government’s ambitious Digital India project seeks to link mobile SIM cards with the unique identity number (UID) or Aadhaar. The development comes close on the heels of the Cabinet approving the blueprint for the Digital India project.”

The conference held that the section of political class which has resisted the Faustian bargain so far must examine following questions and put these biometric agencies to rigorous scrutiny to make them subservient to people’s will: 

Is it a coincidence that the similar schemes are unfolding in South Asia? Isn’t there a design behind persuading and compelling developing countries to biometrically profile their citizens? Is it too early to infer that international bankers, UN agencies and western military alliances wish to create profiles in their biometric and electronic database for coercive use of social control measures? Is it not true that uninformed citizens, parliamentarians and gullible government agencies are too eager to be profiled and tracked through an online database? Would freedom fighters have approved of mass surveillance by any national or transnational agency? Is it not clear that UN agencies, World Bank Group, transnational intelligence companies and military alliances are working in tandem to create the bio-electronic database of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshi as per their pre-determined design? Is this design structured to safeguard the interest of present and future generation? 

It also added that the citizens must compel these national governments to explain how national security of US, France and their allies converge with the national interest of India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

There is evidence in public domain that indicates that under the influence of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and World Bank, Governments of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have been compelled to adopt biometric identification for its residents. In the aftermath of disclosures by Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Citizen Four, Glenn Greenwald and the surveillance by unaccountable institutions, now that the fearful ramifications are visible on the horizon, the question is who is stopping, the political class in the region to desist from allowing subjugation of their fellow citizens to be subjugated by transnational imperial powers. 

Now that Aadhaar Act, 2016 has been notified in the Gazette after it received the President’s assent, the press conference tried to examine the constitutionality and legitimacy of such initiatives in a global and South Asian context. Supreme Court of India is seized with the matter. Election Commission of India has refused to link Aadhaar with Voter ID in compliance with Court’s order. Governments of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal appear to have been compelled to adopt biometric identification for its residents ignoring the fact that countries like UK, USA, China, Australia, and France have abandoned either their identity projects or indiscriminate use of biometrics. But the same has been bulldozed in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. Mass surveillance is harming democracy, the conference opined.

How it is working in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal

One of the most successful examples of implementation of biometric identification is Pakistan. Even SIM card for mobile in Pakistan is done based on biometric identification. Pakistani authorities May 16, 2015 said they have authenticated 75.5 million SIM cards through biometric verification. In an interview, Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks informed Imran Khan about the grave act of omission and commission. Assange said, “…we discovered a cable in 2009 from the Islamabad Embassy. Prime Minister Gilani and interior minister Malik went into the (US) embassy and offered to share National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) – and NADRA is the national data and registration agency database. The system is currently connected through passport data but the government of Pakistan is adding voice and facial recognition capability and has installed a pilot biometric system as the Chenaai border crossing, where 30,000 to 35,000 people cross each day. This NADRA system is the voting record system for all voters in Pakistan. A front company was set up in the United Kingdom – International Identity Services, which was hired as the consultants for NADRA to squirrel out the NADRA data for all of Pakistan. What do you think about that? Is that a…? It seems to me that that is a theft of some national treasure of Pakistan, the entire Pakistani database registry of its people.” The interview was conducted on June 19, 2012. 

In a related development, on December 16, 2015 Bangladesh introduced: mandatory biometric registration for all SIM card owners. With this new system in place, every mobile phone SIM card will be associated with its user’s identity as it appears in the national identity card database of the Election Commission. Every SIM card owner will be asked to verify their identity by providing their fingerprint, which will be checked against the fingerprint data associated with their national identification. Each person will be allowed to register a maximum of twenty mobile phone SIM cards to their national identity card. This scheme connects communications data together with individual, government-assigned identities. By implication it allows the government to have unprecedented oversight on daily lives of Bangladeshi citizens. 

Responding to a complaint Nepal’s Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) raised a national security concern over the contract to be awarded to Morpho Safran, a French company working in India, for preparing the national identity card on January 4, 2016. Its members argued that any firm belonging to, or working in India or China, should not be awarded such a sensitive project as preparing the national identity card that contains all vital information on Nepali citizens. The National Identity Management Centre (NIDMC) has chosen Morpho Safran to print the national IDs, the same firm that had been disqualified earlier for a conflict of interests. Only Morpho Safran was deemed “technically eligible” to set up infrastructure and print the ID cards. While the selection has to be approved by the funding agency, Asian Development Bank (ADB), the fact that only one firm was found to be technically eligible has raised many an eyebrow. PAC members claimed that Morpho’s subsidiary firm is involved in many projects in India including in preparing a similar kind of national identity card (Aadhaar).

The NIDMC of Nepal’s Home Ministry qualified Morpho Safran technically among five other bidders namely, Gemalto (France), IRIS Corporation (Malaysia), Informatics (Sri Lanka), Dermalog and Arjowiggins (France). Nepal’s PAC formed a panel to see if there are irregularities in picking only one firm. In June, 2015 the Nepal Government had called a global tender for procurement and installation of hardware at its offices and all project sites. The Asian Development Bank extended an $8 million loan for the project while the rest is to be financed by the World Bank. The report is yet to see the light of the day. 

It is evident that governments of Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India are following the footprints of an experiment which was tried, tested and failed in the developed countries.

For instance, has NADRA been made accountable for this theft of national treasure of Pakistan? Will these governments be made accountable if “rich data assets” are stolen or sold? Has anyone been made accountable till date in such situations?

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