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India scans a billion irises in interest of national security

Wed 16 Mar 2016

India iris scan

The Indian government is proposing legislation which would allow federal agencies access to its enormous biometric database – which last week reached a rough total of one billion citizen records.

Citing national security, the step to share the data with other authorities comes at a time when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is attempting to quell student protests and drive Hindu nationalism into the agenda for the upcoming state elections. A national stand-off has ensued between state repression, and those fighting for India’s ‘foundational’ ideas of intellectual freedom and tolerance.

The Aadhaar ID database scheme, launched in 2009, was established to support the streamlining of benefit payments and help control fraud and corruption. Data collected under the project is encrypted and stored within national data centres in Bangalore and Manesar.

Village women stand in a queue to get themselves enrolled for the Unique Identification (UID) database system in Merta district of the desert Indian state of Rajasthan, in this February 22, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Mansi ThapliyalLast Friday, Indian reports confirmed that the programme has now registered almost a billion individuals’ finger prints and iris scans.

Privacy advocates have expressed growing fears that an approval in parliament could ‘midwife’ a police state and launch a surveillance programme at both a larger and more intrusive scale than the National Security Agency’s (NSA) espionage campaign revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013.

“[Aadhaar] has been showcased as a tool exclusively meant for disbursement of subsidies … Can the government … assure us that this Aadhaar card and the data that will be collected under it – biometric, biological, iris scan, finger print, everything put together – will not be misused as has been done by the NSA in the U.S.?” lawmaker Tathagata Satpathy told Reuters.

A villager has her fingerprints scanned during registration for the Unique Identification (UID) database system in Pathancheru village, Medak district of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, in this April 27, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Krishnendu HalderOpponents and religious minorities also worry that abusive management of the database could be used as a tool to silence and harass individuals considered as potential security threats. Cybersecurity experts have further argued that a central reserve of biometric data in the world’s most populous democracy could present an enormous risk if compromised.

“Maintaining a central database is akin to getting the keys of every house in Delhi and storing them at a central police station,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director at the Center for Internet and Society in Bengaluru.

Those defending the new law cite the estimated 150 billion rupees (approx. £1.6 billion) saved by the scheme in the financial year 2014-2015. A finance ministry official added that the BJP would ensure that people’s privacy is respected and that third-party federal access would only be granted in special cases.

The BJP, which inherited the database, has suggested that it will use a loophole to make sure that the new provision is approved despite expected opposition in parliament. The government presented the legislation to the upper house of parliament today as a financial bill – which cannot be rejected. It can be returned to the lower house, but here the ruling party holds a majority.


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