India’s relationship with the global tech industry has become increasingly fraught. This year alone, the government has banned Facebook’s free web service and declined to exempt Apple from local sourcing rules and open its own stores, or sell refurbished iPhones. Now India could force companies to use technology cooked up in a government-funded lab.
Government involvement in the tech industry has been on a rise and in India especially, the Tech scene has been marked with many such incidents. Aadhaar card that started out as a unified identity program for Indians had run into a fair share of trouble with people pointing over the privacy concerns. Since Aadhar card stores the person’s biometrics, the stakes are simply multiplied.
Millions of Indians use fingerprint and iris-scan authentication to access a range of public and private services that now includes banking. Indian government now wants Tech companies to open up their encryption to integrate Aadhaar card with the help of a government-funded lab.
Aadhaar is the world’s largest biometric identity programme of it’s kind. In September of 2010, the government of India began collecting citizens’ biometric and demographic data, storing them in a centralized database and issuing a unique 12-digit ID number to every man, woman and childs. As of April this year, more than one billion people had signed up, or about 83% of the population. Here is a tweet by India’s IT minister boasting of the success of the programme.
India is the world’s fastest growing smartphone market, and is also a home to over 300 million smartphone users. Failure to join the effort could limit the tech industry’s access to a vast and growing market, but companies like Apple and Google are expected to resist opening up their phones and operating systems to the Indian registration, encryption and security technology.
The Indian government plans to encrypt Aadhaar-enabled smartphones with a UIDAI key, and connect them to the Aadhaar server, The Economic Times reported earlier. UIDAI or the Unique Identification Authority of India is the government agency behind Aadhaar.
“There will be lots of pushing and shoving by the technology companies,” said Neeraj Aggarwal, managing director of the Boston Consulting Group in India. “It will be a battle of ecosystems, and companies will do their best to hold on to their own.”
A few weeks ago, government officials invited executives from Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to a meeting to discuss embedding Aadhaar encryption into their technology. None of the companies are willing to comment on what transpired at the gathering—and Apple didn’t show up at all.
No doubt Aadhaar has been revolutionary when it comes to a biometric identity program, especially after considering the sheer volume of citizens enrolled into it. The UID is expected to help the authorities get past the frauds and other anomalies and eventually help the poor get their due share of facilities.
The man running the Unique Identification Authority of India, Ajay Bhushan Pandey said that the industry representatives listened to the proposal and were non-commital from their end. But the government will not weaken its position and has seemingly asked the representative’s to “Go to their headquarters and figure it out.” The details of the meeting are still sketchy and it remains to be seen whether the government wants a system level integration or they would be content with a third party app solution.
In case, the Technology companies integrate the authentication into their smartphones, they might lose the revenue made from mining the data and serving the users with the ads. Also, Apple has been fighting tooth and nail with the U.S government authorities after being asked to build a backdoor into its operating system. On the contrary Samsung has already launched Aadhar compliant Galaxy Tab and Microsoft is expected to link its Skype services with Aadhaar card.
Civil liberties and citizens’ groups say the programme violates Indians’ privacy; others warn that Aadhaar’s servers could be hacked and compromise national security. But the government is moving ahead and in recent weeks has rolled out a digital payments infrastructure built on top of the programme. The idea is to bring financial services to a nation where millions have never set foot inside a bank, let alone opened an account.
The entire move seems to be based on a dicey foundation and can potentially result in a war between the Tech companies and the UID authorities. Previously, there have been reports of nearly 300,000 UID data being lost during uploading, a blunder that can compromise one’s security in entirety.
Regardless of whether you live in India or not, this move can have considerable effect on the governments across the world. Most Indians have generally supported the government’s Aadhaar programme except a few who have been concerned for privacy and this move is sure to irk them and many others as well.
What do you think of the move by the Indian Government?