Aadhaar is operationally different from smart cards and Google
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In the on-going Aadhaar Supreme Court hearings, senior counsel Rakesh Dwivedi was alleged to have made a statement to the extent that Google and smart card companies had created a lobby against Aadhaar.
Later in the day, UIDAI sent out a series of tweets stating that Dwivedi’s arguments that Google is trying to fail Aadhaar were not correct.
Lawyers and witnesses present in the court state otherwise and this is open to debate.
Dwivedi also clarified that the Aadhaar data is not available on the internet, from where it can be stolen. We’d like to point out that it’s not clear whether he’s talking about biometric data or demographic data. Multiple leaks in the past, especially from government entities, has resulted in the leak of demographic data (name, address, contact details, etc.) of several thousand Indians, if not millions of Indians.
While UIDAI has stated that there is no attempt by Google to fail Aadhaar, the question of a Google lobby seems moot. But smart cards are a means of identification in many nations, and while in India a lot of the petitioners have expressed an interest to have a smart card in case of an Aadhaar number for verification and authentication purposes, it has so far remained just an idea.
Smart Cards as a national ID
A smart card is like any other debit or credit card, made of plastic with embedded chips which could be RFID compatible. The chips in these smart cards house the personal data of the user, which can only be read by an authorised authenticating machine. A lot of countries use smart cards as a national identification tool. These include Brazil, Israel, Malaysia, Estonia, Indonesia, among others.
While there was no clarification of what was meant by a ‘smart card lobby’, it was reported that the UIDAI felt like ‘a campaign had been unleashed to ensure Aadhaar should be a smart card, ‘a European based commercial venture’. Since UIDAI has distanced itself from this, we will not get into the semantics of it, as this is as vague a statement as any.
Smart cards, specifically in Europe are quite popular. Estonia has been the leader when it comes to smooth implementation of smart cards and their use in governmental as well as non-governmental services.
Smart ID is an Estonian company which allows you to find out the real identity of users. “Smart ID has implemented many different identification methods to identify people because each country has its own popular methods and this list just keeps on growing. Currently, it is possible to identify people securely in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Portugal. Each method has its own security level. National ID cards with smart cards are considered one of the most secure,” says its website.
Here is a list of all the national smart ID cards in use in various European nations. Norway, Denmark, Iceland, the UK are some exceptions, however. Each country has its own rules, whether to make a national ID card compulsory or optional for authentication and services. In an exceptional case, the UK even destroyed its ID card system.
On days 8 and 9 of the Aadhaar Supreme Court hearings, petitioners drew the attention of the Bench to Israel’s smart ID system, where users could use the card to avail benefits and services if they wished to do so. The system used biometric authentication and has a database, but the database lacks any identifying information. In summary, the petitioners argued that there can be an ID card, but it must be voluntary, authentication data must be on the card, it should not collect data, and the people should have the right to alternatives.
According to experts we have spoken to, making Aadhaar a national smart card would take quite a while and would involve a lot of logistics. But the allegation of a smart card lobby sounds like speculation at best, without any proof being presented as to which are the parties that may be interested in this.
Google has little incentive to lobby against Aadhaar
Unlike Aadhaar, Google is a private company and provides services to users for which there are alternatives. If I want to use Google services, I have to make an ID on Google and as I use more Google services, it gets to know me better. I have to opt-in for Google Assistant as it gives me an experience which adds value to my online journey. If I decide that I don’t want to associate with Google services, I can do a ‘Google Takeout’ ie. take a backup of all my data, delete my Google accounts and opt-in for any other alternative service for mail, search, video viewing and so on.
Bottomline — as a user, I have an option to choose if I want to remain with Google.
With Aadhaar becoming a national ID and one that is intricately linked to so many services, there is no option for me to opt out if I don’t want to share my Aadhaar details with services which mandate it.
As rightly pointed out by the UIDAI counsel, unlike Aadhaar, Google uses machine learning algorithms to learn more about me. Well, Google is a technology company first, and its use of machine learning and AI should not come as a surprise. This is done to give users an online experience that is catered to their habits and personas. There is an incentive for companies such as Google, Facebook and others to use machine learning and artificial intelligence in their services. Of course, there is scope for misuse too, as we have all seen with the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Aadhaar, on the other hand, is primarily meant to be used to authenticate you, as you. UIDAI has also stated that not every private entity will be given access to Aadhaar authentication machines. This same private entity can ask you to register or login using your Google ID to access its services. So there again, is a big difference in how these systems work.
When you look at the differing use cases that each of these services such as Aadhaar, smart cards and Google provide, one thing that emerges is that there is no real motivation for a ‘Google and Smart card lobby’ to work against Aadhaar.
The UIDAI distancing itself from these statements is an added validation of how it may have been a slip of tongue.