India’s Biometric Database Is Creating A Perfect Surveillance State — And U.S. Tech Companies Are On Board

08/25/2018 08:01 am ET

NEW DELHI, INDIA APRIL 12: The picture featuring Camp for Aadhar Card on April 12, 2013 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint via Getty Images)

The Aadhaar program offers a glimpse of the tech world’s latest quest to control our lives, where dystopias are created in the name of helping the impoverished.

By Paul Blumenthal and Gopal Sathehuffingtonpost

Big U.S. technology companies are involved in the construction of one of the most intrusive citizen surveillance programs in history.

For the past nine years, India has been building the world’s biggest biometric database by collecting the fingerprints, iris scans and photos of nearly 1.3 billion people. For U.S. tech companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, the project, called Aadhaar (which means “proof” or “basis” in Hindi), could be a gold mine.

The CEO of Microsoft has repeatedly praised the project, and local media have carried frequent reports on consultations between the Indian government and senior executives from companies like Apple and Google (in addition to South Korean-based Samsung) on how to make tech products Aadhaar-enabled. But when reporters of HuffPost and HuffPost India asked these companies in the past weeks to confirm they were integrating Aadhaar into their products, only one company ― Google ― gave a definitive response.

That’s because Aadhaar has become deeply controversial, and the subject of a major Supreme Court of India case that will decide the future of the program as early as this month. Launched nine years ago as a simple and revolutionary way to streamline access to welfare programs for India’s poor, the database has become Indians’ gateway to nearly any type of service ― from food stamps to a passport or a cell phone connection. Practical errors in the system have caused millions of poor Indians to lose out on aid. And the exponential growth of the project has sparked concerns among security researchers and academics that India is the first step toward setting up a surveillance society to rival China.

A Scheme Born In The U.S.

Tapping into Aadhaar would help big tech companies access the data and transactions of millions of users in the second most populous country on earth, explained Usha Ramanathan, a Delhi-based lawyer, legal researcher and one of Aadhaar’s most vocal critics.

The idea for India’s national biometric identification team wasn’t unprecedented, and in fact, it has strong parallels with a system proposed for the United States. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the CEO of Oracle, Larry Ellison, offered to build the U.S. government software for a national identification system that would include a centralized computer database of all U.S. citizens. The program never got off the ground amid objections from privacy and civil liberties advocates, but India’s own Ellison figure, Nandan Nilekani, had a similar idea. The billionaire founder of IT consulting giant Infosys, Nilekani conceptualized Aadhaar as a way to eliminate waste and corruption in India’s social welfare programs. He lobbied the government to bring in Aadhaar, and went on to run the project under the administration of Manmohan Singh. Nilekani gained even more influence under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who moved to make Aadhaar necessary for almost any kind of business in India.

The first 12-digit Aadhaar ID was issued in 2010. Today, over a billion people (around 89 percent of India’s population) have been included in the system ― from India’s unimaginably wealthy billionaires to the homeless, from residents of the country’s sprawling cities to remote inaccessible villages. While initially a voluntary program, the database is now linked to just about all government programs. You need an Aadhaar ID to get a passport issued or renewed. Aadhaar was made mandatory for operating a bank account, using a cell phone or investing in mutual funds, only for the proposals to be rolled back pending the Supreme Court verdict on the constitutionality of the project.

As Aadhaar identification became integrated into other systems like banking, cell phones and government programs, tech companies can use the program to cross-reference their datasets against other databases and assemble a far more detailed and intrusive picture of Indians’ lives. That would allow them, for example, to better target products or advertising to the vast Indian population. “You can take a unique identifying number and use it to find data in different sectors,” explained Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, an American public interest research group. “That number can be cross-walked across all the different parts of their life.”

Microsoft, which uses Aadhaar in a new version of Skype to verify users, declined to talk about its work integrating products with the Aadhaar database. But Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founder, has publicly endorsed Aadhaar and his foundation is funding a World Bank program to bring Aadhaar-like ID programs to other countries. Gates has also argued that ID verification schemes like Aadhaar in itself don’t pose privacy issues. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has repeatedly praised Aadhaar in both his recent book and a tour across India.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment, but according to a BuzzFeed report, the company told Indian customers not uploading a copy of Aadhaar “might result in a delay in the resolution or no resolution” of cases where packages were missing.

Facebook, too, failed to respond to repeated requests for comment, though the platform’s prompts for users to log in with the same name as their Aadhaar card prompted suspicions from users that it wanted everyone to use their Aadhaar-verified names and spellings so they could later build in Aadhaar functionality with minimal problems.

A spokesman for Google, which has its own payments platform in India called Tez, told HuffPost that the company has not integrated any of its products with Aadhaar. But there was outrage earlier in August when the Aadhaar helpline was added to Android phones without informing users. Google claimed in a statement to the Economic Times this happened “inadvertently”

Privacy Jeopardized For Millions

But the same features that are set to make tech companies millions are are also the ones that threaten the privacy and security of millions of Indians.

“As long as [the data] is being shared with so many people and services and companies, without knowing who has what data, it will always be an issue,” said Srinivas Kodali, an independent security researcher. “They can’t protect it until they encrypt it and stop sharing data.”

One government website allowed users to search and geolocate homes on the basis of caste and religion ― sparking fears of ethnic and religious violence in a country where lynchings, beatings and mob violence are commonplace. Another website broadcast the names, phone numbers and medical purchases — like generic Viagra and HIV medication — of anyone who buys medicines from government stores. In another leak, a Google search for phone numbers of farmers in Andhra Pradesh would reveal their Aadhaar numbers, address, fathers’ names and bank account numbers.

The leaks are aggravated by “a Star Trek-type obsession” with data dashboards, said Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society. Many government departments each created an online data dashboard with detailed personal records on individuals, he explained. The massive centralization of personal data, he said, created a huge security risk as these dashboards were accessible to any government official and in many cases, were even left open to the public.

Authentication failures have led to deaths among the poorest sections of Indian society when people were denied government food rations.

And much like the tech companies, some local governments are using the system to connect data sets and build expansive surveillance. In the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, there’s a war room next to the state chief minister’s office, where a wall of screens shows details from databases that collect information from every department. There are security cameras and dashboards that track every mention of the chief minister on the news. There’s a separate team watching what’s being said about him on social media and there are also dashboards that collect information from IoT [Internet of Things] sensors across the state.

Court Ruling Could Halt Rollout

Those issues around privacy are why the dreams of government bureaucrats and large tech companies to build a perfect surveillance apparatus around Aadhaar may ultimately fall apart. The Supreme Court of India is set to decide on a case that could decide the future of the program.  

The court is set to review 27 petitions, including whether requiring an Aadhaar for government subsidies and benefits makes access to these programs conditional, even though the state is constitutionally bound to deliver them. The petitioners include lawyers, academics and a 92-year-old retired judge whose petition also secured the right to privacy as a fundamental right in August 2017. Petitioners also argue that the ability for Aadhaar to be used to track and profile people is unconstitutional.

In its judgment, due any day now, the court will rule on all 27 petitions together. It will decide not only the fate of the Aadhaar Act of 2016, but likely the future involvement of some of tech’s biggest companies in one of the world’s most ambitious and divisive IT projects.

Nearly 600 Migrant Kids Are Still Separated From Parents A Week After Court Deadline

The Trump administration suggested the onus was on the ACLU to locate parents that officials had separated from their children at the border.

By Sarah Ruiz-Grossman          8/02/2018 10:40 pm ET HUFFPOST

LINTHICUM, MD – JULY 23: Seven-year-old Andy is reunited with his mother, Arely, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport July 23, 2018 in Linthicum, Maryland. Originally from El Salvador, the mother and son were separated upon entering the United States on June 13 with Arely being detained at the Port Isabel Detention Center in south Texas, and Andy being detained in New York. A court-ordered July 26th deadline is approaching for the U.S. government to reunite as many as 2,551 migrant children ages 5 to 17 that had been separated from their families after they crossed into the U.S. along the border. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Trump administration has still not reunited nearly 600 migrant children that it separated from parents at the border in recent months, according to a court filing on Thursday.

In a status report in a case involving a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of separated migrant parents, the government’s lawyers said that more than 1,500 children had been reunited with their parents and about 400 more children were discharged from government custody through other circumstances, some to parents and others to sponsors.

However, the U.S. Justice Department lawyers reported that an additional 572 children remained in government-contracted shelters without their parents ― a full week after the court-ordered July 26 deadline to reunify separated families.

The government had not deemed those parents “eligible” for reunification because they had been deported, had been released into the interior of the country, had failed a background check or had yet to be located. The parents of more than 400 detained children, for instance, were no longer in the U.S. ― which a government official previously said was because they had been deported.

Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego ordered the government to detail its plan for reuniting kids with parents who were deported or released.

In the Thursday court filings, the Trump administration said it was on the ACLU and “their considerable resources and their network of law firms, NGOs, volunteers, and others” to locate parents who had been deported or released.

The ACLU, in turn, said the onus was squarely on the government to find parents its officials had separated from their children at the U.S. border.

“The Government must bear the ultimate burden of finding the parents,” the ACLU said in the filing. “Not only was it the government’s unconstitutional separation practice that led to this crisis, but the United States Government has far more resources than any group of NGOs.”

In June, Sabraw ordered the Trump administration to reunite the more than 2,500 migrant children officials had taken from parents as a result of Trump’s hard-line zero tolerance policy on immigration.

Last week, the Trump administration applauded its own efforts to meet Sabraw’s July 26 deadline to reunify families, saying that more than 1,400 kids had been reunited with parents. But that figure didn’t include more than 700 children who still remained in shelters, whose parents the government had not deemed eligible for reunification.

Even for families who have been reunited, the struggle to stay together in the U.S. is not over. About 900 parents had final orders of removal, according to government statements in court last week. Some parents will have to make the tough choice of either leaving the U.S. with their children or fighting for asylum and potentially being separated again if the parent is deported and the child stays to seek safety.

Lawyers have also questioned the legality of forms that some parents signed consenting to their own deportations, saying that the clients didn’t understand them or signed under pressure.

“The government shouldn’t be proud of the work they’re doing on reunification,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt told reporters on a call last week, noting there was much work still to be done.

“It should just be, ‘We created this cruel, unconstitutional, inhumane policy. Now we’re trying to fix it in every way we can and make these families whole.’ Not, ‘We’re proud we’re doing the reunifications,’ as if they’re showing up to fix some natural disaster. This is a disaster that they created.”

Republican Lawmakers Take A Raise Away From St. Louis Workers


GOP statehouses around the country are blocking local progressive policies through “preemption” laws. Missouri may be the most glaring case yet.

By Dave Jamieson                            HuffPost

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – APRIL 22: A sign is posted on the exterior of a McDonald’s restaurant on April 22, 2015 in San Francisco, California. McDonald’s reported a decline in first quarter revenues with a profit of $811.5 million, or 84 cents a share compared to $1.2 billion, or $1.21 a share, one year ago. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Two months ago, Cynthia Sanders got a raise at her janitorial job, from $8.30 to $10 per hour, after St. Louis passed a law raising its minimum wage. The extra money has helped the 51-year-old cover groceries and utilities as she raises three grandchildren.

But in just a few weeks, Sanders’ pay rate could drop back down again, thanks to a new law Republicans in the Missouri legislature passed invalidating St. Louis’ minimum wage.

“It was life-changing to get this, and it’s going to be life-changing to have it taken away,” said Sanders, who cleans four kitchenettes and eight bathrooms per shift at a Wells Fargo building downtown. “You’ve got children looking at you to be a provider. How do I tell them we’ve got to eat noodles again this week?”

Like other low-wage workers in Missouri and beyond, Sanders finds herself caught in a political and legal battle between local Democrats and state Republicans. As blue cities become incubators for progressive policy, their red state legislatures are trying to thwart them through “preemption laws” that forbid cities and counties from implementing their own measures related to the minimum wage, paid sick days, plastic bag taxes and other hot-button issues.

So far, Republican state legislators are winning the fight. In Missouri, for example, the GOP controls both chambers of the statehouse as well as the governor’s mansion.

It was life-changing to get this, and it’s going to be life-changing to have it taken away.    –Cynthia Sanders, St. Louis janitor

Under the law Republicans passed in response to St. Louis’ new ordinance, no locality could have a minimum wage higher than the state level of $7.70 per hour. And St. Louis is not the only city immediately affected. A referendum to gradually raise the minimum wage in Kansas City to $15 was slated to go on the ballot in August.

Gov. Eric Greitens (R) said he does not intend to veto the bill. So under the rules of the Missouri Constitution it will eventually go into effect automatically, reverting the St. Louis minimum wage to $7.70 on Aug. 28. It would also preempt the minimum wage under consideration in Kansas City.

While preemption laws have been around for years, Republicans are increasingly turning to them to nullify local liberal policies. According to a February report from the National League of Cities, 24 states now block local minimum wage hikes, 17 block local paid leave mandates, and three block local anti-discrimination measures. The group attributes the growing use of preemption laws to the fact that Republicans now have 25 so-called state government “trifectas” ― control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office.

The laws have become a particularly effective tool for blunting the “Fight for $15” campaign, a union-funded initiative aimed at raising the minimum wage and unionizing low-wage workers. While the federal minimum wage has remained $7.25 since 2009, voters and city halls have embraced proposals to raise the local minimum wage, in some cases hiking the wage floor to as high as $15. (The federal minimum wage prevails anywhere local law does not mandate a higher one.) The preemption laws have provided Republican state officials with a way to block proposals that poll extremely well and have strong financial backing from unions.

Dennis Shaw, who works at the St. Louis grocery chain Schnucks, received a $1.70 raise due to the St. Louis ordinance. The pay bump translated into an extra $30 or so each week after taxes ― a welcome addition that has helped him pay rent on his one-bedroom apartment downtown and avoid bank overdraft fees. He said that legislators in the state Capitol don’t understand what it’s like for someone trying to survive on the minimum wage in the city.

“It borders on disgraceful,” Shaw, 36, said of the preemption law. “This isn’t just not getting a raise ― it’s a pay cut. It will result in bills not being paid.” Shaw’s union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, estimates that 500 of its members in the city could see their pay downgraded in August, according to a spokesman.

Republicans who have pursued preemption laws have often argued that they want to avoid a patchwork of minimum wages around the state, which they claim could be confusing for employers. But Rep. Jason Chipman, a Republican who represents a rural district southwest of St. Louis, said he sponsored the measure in the Missouri House of Representatives because he didn’t think the government should dictate minimum wages to employers.

“The government is not here to run people’s businesses,” Chipman said in an interview, arguing that higher minimum wages kill jobs. “If an employee doesn’t like what’s being offered, they can go somewhere else. Be more productive. Be worth more.”

“These are supposed to be entry-level jobs,” he added. “We understand there are people who rely on these jobs who are not entry-level-type people, but you can’t legislate by the exception.”

One of the prime grievances lobbed against preemption laws is that they undermine local governance. It’s an odd look for Republican legislators who often rail against meddling in parochial affairs by Washington. Asked why St. Louis or Kansas City shouldn’t be able to determine its own policies ― even if those policies are folly ― Chipman said the cities are economic drivers that impact the whole state. “When you lose economic output, you lose revenue to the state,” he said. “It doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

Many of the preemption battles are tinged with a racial component, as mostly white legislatures override the laws of heavily minority cities. (St. Louis has a black plurality, and the minimum wage raise would disproportionately affect minorities.) In Alabama, the overwhelmingly African-American city of Birmingham also raised its minimum wage to $10.10, only to have the majority-white legislature block it with a preemption law. The Alabama chapter of the NAACP filed a civil rights lawsuit, which was thrown out by a judge but is now on appeal.

Many of the preemption battles are tinged with a racial component, as mostly white legislatures override the laws of heavily minority cities.

The Missouri law presents an unusual case because so many workers in St. Louis have already received raises. Chipman said he had hoped to avoid such a situation, blaming the state Senate for not moving quickly enough to pass the preemption law before the St. Louis ordinance went into effect. Greitens, too, chided the state Senate for not fast-tracking a bill, providing that as the reason he would not put his signature on it. Missouri Democrats have called Greitens’ passive approval of the law craven.

Nick Desideri, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union Local 1, said he still holds out hope that Greitens will veto the preemption measure, given the optics in St. Louis.

“The level of cruelty in this thing just boggles my mind,” said Desideri, whose union has been the primary backer of the “Fight for $15.”

The St. Louis employers who doled out raises due to the short-lived minimum wage hike will soon have to decide whether or not to revoke them. Of course, workers don’t appreciate seeing their pay go backwards. A spokesman for Shaw’s employer, Schnucks, which has eight stores in St. Louis, said the company plans to revert to the pay rates laid out in the union contract.

That means Shaw’s pay would drop back to $8.30. Shaw said that he considers Schnucks a good employer, but he wouldn’t expect them to honor the higher rates once legislators give them an out.

“Businesses are not in business for moral obligations,” Shaw said. “I would hope they keep [the raises] in place, but I could imagine them taking them away. And I wouldn’t blame them should that happen. There are others I could blame.”