About Article 21 Trust
The adoption of digital technologies for improving citizen-state engagement and providing citizens easier access to government and its functions is certainly necessary, especially in a country the size of India. Yet, the decision-making behind this digitization remains opaque; the average citizen barely gets to know how policies are crafted and who all are consulted. This is especially worrisome in the domain of public welfare wherein techno-solutionism, as in the case of Aadhaar, throws up more problems than those tackled.
India’s first attempt at a digital identity verification system, the Aadhaar project, has now been ongoing for nearly a decade. The biometrics-linked 12-digit Aadhaar number was purported to be a welfare enabler, a technological tool to help identify – uniquely – those receiving welfare benefits and subsidies from the state. The abject reality, however, is that making provision of the Aadhaar number, or undergoing Aadhaar-based biometric authentication, has only furthered the problem of welfare delivery, with genuine beneficiaries also failing to receive the entitlements due to them. Those responsible for governing the scheme remain impervious to criticism and have made no attempts to study the impact thereof.
Having made Aadhaar mandatory to access any government service or entitlement, the State has managed to get Aadhaar numbers seeded into every database creating a gold mine of data that can potentially enable 360º surveillance. We have been told, “Data is the new oil”. In the age of Cambridge Analytica and breaches in the Social Security Number (SSN) database in the US, it is clear that no database, whether maintained privately or by government, is truly secure.
This led us to wonder:
1) Whether a Utopian digital welfare state is at all possible that doesn’t result in worsening exclusions and further marginalizing the already marginalized?
2) If so, what sort of digital systems – whether identity and authentication, payments, or governance overall – will be truly universal in terms of access, secure in terms of maintaining informational privacy, and robust in their implementation across huge geographies and populations? …and…
3) Most importantly, are such systems desirable and, if so, who controls them and how?
Article 21 Trust is a formal attempt at seeking answers to these questions while continuing to engage with the present reality of Aadhaar and other existing welfare-oriented digital systems. We aim to conduct conversations involving experts in the field with the aim of shaping public discussion and thought as well as governmental policy. We will also look to raise funds that can help shape further study and research, and pay for legal interventions should they be required. Ultimately, we hope we can build awareness broadly on the sociopolitics of technology, particularly identity technology, whereby citizens are owners of data whose commodification is sought actively by the government as well as private players.
Praavita is a lawyer who also works with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan
Prasanna, a Delhi-based lawyer, previously wrote, designed, and architected software