As a writer, I am interested in words (needless to say). I am interested in what they mean, what they communicate, and what they stand for. I am also interested in learning what they come to be, which, I admit, might not be so common an interest. Nonetheless, I think it’s worthwhile because words can often be deceiving. They can lull us into a false sense of security almost subliminally without us ever realizing that they don’t come to be what they represent. Let’s take Aadhar, for instance. It means “foundation” or “base”. And yet, much of the discussion surrounding it, after the Supreme Court of India’s verdict at the end of last year, expressed concern that the unique identification system would violate a fundamental right of all Indians to privacy. Could Aadhar be foundational without protecting this right?
What is Aadhaar?
For the government of India (GoI), it is the foundation on which they wish to build their services in the digital era. Its objective is to recognize Indians by collecting minimal demographic and biometric details and then use it to not only avoid duplication of identity, but also to promote inclusiveness and foster collective growth using a transparent, “hassle-free” and “people-centric” form of governance. The program is truly one of a kind in the world as it tries to overcome the difficulty of issuing a digital id to over a billion people for free. But, is it free?
The Cost of Aadhar
Aadhaar is free for all Indians on paper – no citizen need pay any money to get verified or obtain a digital signature. Having said that, they might pay for it by compromising on their privacy if the system is not safely implemented. There is a fear that the centralized database could be prone to attacks from Chinese hackers or other malevolent forces from even within the country. Who is to say that no politician could ever be so hungry for power to usurp it by using sensitive information on all citizens. The internal threats might not be as clear as that of foreign hackers, but history is testimony to the fact that internal threats are as real as the hackers who invaded the NSA in the US or NHS in Britain, and we need to be mindful of them.
The Challenge for GoI
There is no doubt that the Aadhaar has been introduced to usher in the digital age and use technology to bridge infrastructural gaps in the pursuit of rapid development. Therefore, a roll back of the program is unlikely, if not unnecessary. The reform is ambitious and has way too much potential for the government to back down from the challenges it throws up. If anything, it must be taken more seriously so that the vision for the country is realized in a safe and effective manner. And for that, the Indian government must work hard to fulfill a “reasonable expectation of privacy” of its citizens, ensure autonomy of all individuals and avoid discrimination based on religion, caste or any other social affiliation.
The Blockchain Solution
Blockchain presents itself as the ideal solution to the Indian government’s problem of implementing Aadhar. Not only is the technology built around seven ethical principles that fight the problems of the Aadhaar and other frauds like the PNB scam, it also seems poised to revolutionize how social systems and institutions work. The technology came into prominence with the rise of Bitcoin. Ever since, it has been touted as the new internet in anticipation of the impact it is expected to have on society.
Blockchain is digital public ledger of asset transactions that is maintained on a trusted network. The key here is to note that the network is trusted, not the people who manage itBlockchain is trusted because it is decentralized and distributed. Which means no single person or institution has full authority over it. It uses a cryptographic verification system referred to as hashing that makes it transparent while being perfectly secure. These features of the technology make it suitable for Aadhaar and the GoI’s purposes. Having said that, there are also hindrances to implementing blockchain.
Problems of Blockchain
The first problem that the GoI would have to contend with is creating a fresh database on blockchain. It took the government a lot of time, energy (in terms of man power) and money to collect the information that it already has. How does it transfer this data on to the blockchain? It would require an extensive amount of computing resources. Which brings us to the second problem. Does the government have the capability and bandwidth to make this shift and maintain it? Thirdly, how does the GoI bring digitally illiterate citizens on-board and get them to trust it, let alone use it? The technology, with all its plus points, would be of no use if the people did not know how to engage with it and make the most of it. And lastly, do we have the technical know-how and talent in human resources to undertake such a grand mission? These are questions that deserve serious consideration, if we are to use blockchain to solve the problems of the Aadhaar digital identification system.
Blockchain for Aadhaar
There is no doubt that blockchain technology has answers to questions of privacy in the government of India’s rush to build an “Aadhaar” for the digital era. Smaller countries like Estonia are already managing their assets and identities on blockchain networks. Perhaps then, the doubts are not on the capabilities of the blockchain, but whether the Indian government can in fact use it to give Aadhaar its true meaning so that Aadhaar can become foundational for India’s digital future.