Open Sourcing India: The Aadhaar Project


It’s been just over a year since the controversial Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill was passed in the Indian Parliament. Claimed to be a Money Bill, the bill was passed even though the Rajya Sabha had suggested five amendments to the original draft. This bill planned to use the identification number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), to deliver State subsidies directly into the bank accounts of beneficiaries. This eliminated the long chain of intermediaries which filled their coffers with the money as it trickled down from the Centre to the beneficiaries. Widely marketed as a master plan to provide the poor with the needful, the project struggles to conceal a dark side.

Rolling out unique identification number to over 1.12 billion Indians, UIDAI now has the world’s largest biometric database. Is the security of this huge user database a priority for the Indian Government? It doesn’t seem to be the case. With the lack of proper security and privacy laws in the country, the government has allegedly been selling the access of this precious database to private companies. Once in possession of this data, the companies can create a profile of any citizen of the country. There were speculations that database is being shared with MongoDB, a NoSQL data based startup which raised funding from CIA-backed In-Q-Tel. The Aadhaar database uses MangoDB to run a database search.

The government can also share user data in the ‘interest of national security’, a highly ambiguous statement. This makes one wonder whether the data is actually ‘safe’ in the hands of the government. The government needs to be more transparent in its procedures to show the citizens how their private information is being used. In turn, the government has been trying to soften the issue by all this covering in the garb of ‘open source’.

They have termed the Aadhaar API as an ‘open API’ and the corporate partners as ‘volunteers’. An executive chairwoman of one of the leading contributors to Mozilla, one of the largest open source projects in the world, Jochai Ben-Avie wrote in an article, “There is nothing open about the project. The development was not open, the source code is not open, and companies that pay to get a license to access this biometric identity database are not volunteers.”

Is there a solution to this issue? Fortunately, there is. The country needs proper privacy laws which do not allow anyone to use their personal information, at least not without their consent. A strong and comprehensive law needed which protects the individual privacy and security of citizens. Also, the government should actually make Aadhaar an open source initiative. Thankfully, the government has been working on such laws and a bill regarding this is expected in the forthcoming years.

As all good things have a tiny bit of negativity in them the Aadhaar scheme is no exception. It has the potential to benefit a large fraction of the population by cutting down corruption and seepage of money down the ladder to a large extent. But the issues mentioned need immediate attention. The issues of security and privacy will loom over the scheme until drastic measures have not been taken. The use of public data being one of the most debated topics of recent times, the government is in a very opportune position to prove to its citizens that their protection is its priority.

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