India's Aadhaar ruling highlights debate over 'good digital identity'

A biometric data collection camp of the 'Aadhaar' project of the Unique Identification Authority of India in Salt lake, Kolkata in 2015. Photo by: Biswarup Ganguly / CC BY

NEW YORK — On Wednesday, India’s Supreme Court ruled that Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric identity scheme, did not violate the country’s constitution — but also limited the scheme’s scope so that Aadhaar enrollment will not be required for access to bank accounts, school, or mobile phone connections.

The ruling means the Aadhaar card will not be required in exchange for goods and services. It also serves as the latest entry into an ongoing debate about what constitutes “good digital ID” at a time when concerns about privacy and access confront a world in which more than 1 billion people lack any proof of identity. India has shown the potential to provide digital identity at scale, but also the risk of doing so without laws and regulations that protect the privacy of users, according to digital rights advocates.

“Digital identity is going to happen. It’s already happening. There’s no turning back. But I think the conversation is changing. I think there was a focus on on the potential without recognizing what the short- and medium- and long-term risks were,” said Brett Solomon, executive director of Access Now, at a World Economic Forum event on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

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“The problem is there already a billion people on the database in India,” he added.

Solomon shared the concerns of some civil society organizations that, despite the potential benefits of digital identity, particularly for the world’s poorest, digital identity done wrong could also pose the greatest threat to human rights.

“There are three areas we should focus on in the creation of digital ID frameworks: ‘Governance, data protection, and cybersecurity,’” he said.

The wording of the supreme court ruling also alluded to some of those tradeoffs. Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, who read the majority judgment, explained that Aadhaar gives dignity to the marginalized, and that outweighs privacy.

“We cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater,” the chief justice wrote.

Anit Mukherjee, policy fellow at the Center for Global Development who has served as a policy advisor to Aadhaar, told Devex that he has some thoughts but little clarity of what “a good digital identification” is or should be. If good ID means strict data protection and data sharing protocols, and a high degree of personal agency with multiple authentication options, many developing countries have a hard time meeting those requirements, he said.

Despite the controversy around Aadhaar, based on the ruling, Aadhaar may be getting close to being a real-life example of what good digital ID can be, Mukherjee said.

“There’s a world in which we achieve [Sustainable Development Goal target] 16.9 and people are worse off,” Dakota Gruener, executive director of ID2020, told Devex, referencing the global target to achieve a legal identity for all.

“In the rush to roll this out, we implement systems that are the best surveillance systems ever designed,” she said.

Aadhaar has also raised concerns about what can happen when people are solely dependent on the state to prove who they are. Gruener said she thinks the community of advocates for identity for all is watching India so closely because it has been held up as the model for other countries, and the recalibration that will follow the ruling will hold important lessons for the world. Many are calling for widespread forms of national identification, which are portable, making it possible for someone to prove who they are without depending solely on national ID.

If Aadhaar serves as an example of building a system first, only to confront questions about privacy and exclusion later, a number of development donors are working to ensure that future digital ID efforts reverse that sequence.

“We want donors to be more thoughtful about what they do with identity and think about individual agency more deliberately than they have in the past,” said CV Madhukar, who leads Omidyar Network’s digital identity work.

Omidyar Network has joined with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to support the World Bank’s Identification for Development initiative, or ID4D, which works with countries to understand the potential of digital identification systems it describes as robust, inclusive, and responsible. Last year, the organization released 10 principles on identification for development, which center on universal coverage and accessibility, robust, secure, and responsive design, and protecting privacy and user rights through governance. This week, ID4D and its partners launched Mission Billion, an innovation challenge calling for ideas around privacy and user control over their identification.

In Africa alone, the World Bank has put $800 million dollars worth of either pipeline or committed projects in both civil registration and digital identification systems, and this initiative ensures that when the World Bank supports these countries, it also helps to put in place data protection and privacy regulations, said Vyjayanti Desai, program manager at ID4D.

Madhukar said Omidyar Network wants to encourage the global development sector to think about good ID more seriously. The firm recently piloted a series of “Good ID Dialogues” with the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, and plans to host those conversations more widely.

His hope is that donors will get to a place where, when countries approach them for funding, they will include a set of conditions around good digital ID.

“That lever is so powerful — you can easily understand why these guys are such a big focus for engagement for us,” Madhukar said.

Update, Sept. 27, 2018: This story has been updated to clarify the concerns digital rights advocates shared about India's lack of laws and regulations before the Supreme Court vote.

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    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.