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.

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/india-aadhuar-tech-companies_us_5b7ebc53e4b0729515109fd0

The sinking state

This is what happens when climate change forces an entire country to seek higher ground

By Joshua Keating  JULY 26, 2018

The central Pacific nation of Kiribati has a few claims to fame. Its flag-bearer at the past two summer Olympics won international attention and became a meme because of his memorable dancing. The country — known under British colonial rule as the Gilbert Islands (the name Kiribati, pronounced KI-ri-bahss, is a local transliteration of “Gilberts”) — has 33 islands spread over more than 1.3 million square miles, making it one of the world’s largest nations in terms of sea area, though one of the smallest in terms of land. But what it gets the most attention for these days is its impending doom: The nation may be one of the first in line to be wiped out by the effects of climate change.

In the century to come, we’re likely to see dramatic alterations to the physical shape of the world as we know it, thanks to rising sea levels and other environmental changes. But the immediate challenges faced by most countries pale in comparison to those of Kiribati, which has an average elevation of less than six feet. The atoll of Tarawa, where nearly half the country’s 110,000 residents live, could soon be substantially underwater. “By 2050, 18-80% of the land in Buariki, North Tarawa, and up to 50% of the land in Bikenibeu, South Tarawa could become inundated,” the government told the United Nations in 2015. Kiribati’s smaller outlying islands could be wiped out even sooner. “The results of sea level rise and increasing storm surge threaten the very existence and livelihoods of large segments of the population,” officials wrote.

Small island states like Kiribati and the Maldives have become symbols of the potential impacts of global warming. At the 2015 Paris climate summit, they pressured larger countries to accept the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than two degrees, over preindustrial levels. (It was mostly a symbolic victory: Barring unforeseen circumstances, particularly since the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the accord, both targets will be exceeded.) They are also working to develop first-line defenses against the effects of sea-level rise, including planting mangroves to prevent coastal erosion and improving rainwater-collection systems to protect water quality.

But if none of that works, they may have to consider more drastic options. And so, in 2014, Kiribati purchased about eight square miles on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu for a little less than $9 million, potentially for the purpose of moving its population there one day. “We would hope not to put everyone on one piece of land,” the country’s then-president, Anote Tong, said. “But if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it.” Fiji would become the new home of the nation’s inhabitants, known as the I-Kiribati.

The relocation of people due to climate change isn’t unprecedented. Papua New Guinea has already begun moving the population of the Carteret Islands, a group of low-lying atolls, to the mainland. But this would be the first time an entire country had to relocate because the land on which it was built no longer existed. This raises a new and frightening question: If a country no longer exists in physical form, can it still exist as a political entity? Can a nation just up and move?

About half the population of Kiribati lives on Tarawa atoll. In the next 30 years, officials say, substantial portions of Tarawa could be submerged by rising seas. (Richard Vogel/AP)

I knew Tong by reputation from the impassioned speeches he delivered at U.N. General Assemblies and climate change conferences during his time as president, from 2003 to 2016. So when I visited Kiribati in 2016 to research a book about border changes and the future of the world map, I called him. When we met one afternoon in Tarawa, he had just come in from fishing and was relaxing in shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt in the maneaba, or meeting house, outside his family’s home in a crowded residential neighborhood. John Denver played softly from a Bluetooth speaker. But the former president was troubled. “One of the most difficult things I’ve had to expect is planning for the demise of my country,” Tong told me.

He wants the I-Kiribati to stay if it’s even remotely possible. But, he rued, relocation is probably unavoidable. “The science is pretty clear: zero emissions, we’ll still go underwater. Unless some drastic work is undertaken, there will be no option. That’s the reality. It’s not a hope. It’s not a desire. It’s the brutal reality.”

Yet no one’s quite sure what that reality will look like. When I visited Secretary of Foreign Affairs Akka Rimon, she cracked the joke I’d been afraid to make: “Climate change really put us back on the world map. The irony is that we’re being erased from the world map.” Rimon had tried to think through what relocation could entail, though she didn’t really know how Kiribati’s nationhood could be preserved. “We don’t have the answer. There doesn’t seem to be any entity that looks after that. Sovereignty exists within the borders of your nation, but what happens when that changes? Nobody has the answer,” she said.

Historically, countries are not physically destroyed; they simply become other countries, the land they occupy controlled by someone else. But at a minimum, to exist, a country needs a government, a population and a piece of real estate within a defined territory — the boot of Italy, the hanging triangle of India, the narrow strip of Chile. The shape of a nation has long been defined by two kinds of lines: the borders that separate it from other countries and the coasts that separate it from the sea. We may understand why political borders are subject to change, but in an era of rising seas and increasingly extreme weather and natural disasters, we have to get used to the fact that coastal boundaries can’t be taken for granted, either. Indeed, our land-water borders are changing quickly and significantly, and in ways that will probably never be reversed.

Environmental-law scholars have begun to discuss the notion of “ex-situ nationhood,” under which governments, with some financial support from the international community, would continue to represent their populations on an international level at bodies like the United Nations, without any connection to a physical territory. Under one model, the I-Kiribati would retain some rights as citizens, even as they dispersed around the globe. As Maxine Burkett of the University of Hawaii, who has written extensively on the political dilemmas facing small island states, told me in 2014: “A number of us understand the modern notion of citizenship, where people have ties to more than one country. But the notion of that happening without a physical territory is quite novel.”

In a 2013 essay, Jenny Grote Stoutenburg, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, recommended that, to maintain international recognition, island states facing destruction should reinforce their territory to keep at least some physical structure above water and keep a small group of inhabitants behind, even if the bulk of the population has relocated. The Kiribati of the future, in other words, may be little more than a skeleton crew, a reinforced platform with a flag perched in the open ocean after the rest of the population has moved to another piece of land or to several of them. This is a very different notion of national sovereignty than anything the world has seen before.

There are understandable motivations behind plans like these: The people of small island states want to continue to have political representation in the international community, and they have economic interests to protect — rights to fisheries and natural resources in their territory, for instance. But these plans also offer a version of cartographical stasis taken to the point of parody: the erection of a fig-leaf physical presence in the middle of the ocean just so that maps showing a country in a particular place will be technically correct.

Still, a nation ending entirely, with no successor, might be a wholly new event in human history. In grappling with the possibility, some scholars have dusted off models and concepts that predate the modern nation-state.

One is the Sovereign Order of Malta — a Catholic order that controls no physical territory but has existed in multiple locations, including Jerusalem, Cyprus, Malta and Rome, throughout its nearly 1,000-year history. In an odd geopolitical quirk, despite controlling no territory today, the order has diplomatic relations, including embassies, with dozens of countries and observer status at the United Nations.

The order’s sovereign status makes it a throwback to an earlier, more fluid era of international politics, when sovereignty was tied more closely to ruling families or dynasties than to territories with fixed locations. Today, for instance, the historical kingdom of Burgundy is associated with the central French region of that name. But in his book “Vanished Kingdoms,” British historian Norman Davies identifies 15 kingdoms of Burgundy dating back to 410 and occupying locations from the west bank of the Rhine to what is now Switzerland to the Netherlands. Describing the disintegration of Burgundy in the 13th century, Davies writes: “The typical Burgundian count was no longer the ruler of one straightforward fief dependent on one overlord. More often he was head of a complex clutch of lands, titles and claims, assembled over the generations by the combined efforts of his family’s knights, wives, children and lawyers.”

If the vanishing countries of the future are to survive in any form, they’re likely to look less like contemporary nation-states and more like the Knights of Malta or medieval Burgundy, political creations set up to represent a group of people, and their political interests, who will be increasingly dispersed geographically and culturally.

These are not scenarios you’re likely to hear much about in Kiribati. For all that countries like Kiribati have done to bring urgency to the fight against climate change, many locals seem no more troubled about the issue than people in the United States are. When I visited on my reporting trip, people for the most part agreed that the climate was changing, pointing to shifting rainy seasons and irregular fishing patterns. But they usually didn’t believe that the islands would come to an end.

I heard several odd pseudoscientific arguments from Kiribati people during my time there, including that hotter weather would evaporate all the water released by the melting polar ice caps and that the coral in the Kiribati atolls would help the islands float as the water rose. Many people pointed out, correctly, that the shape of the islands regularly shifted before sea-level rise — and that the impacts of climate change so far had been difficult to disentangle from other factors. Most people I met weren’t making plans to relocate anytime soon. In contrast to Tong, the new government has not made the evacuation of Kiribati a priority, even a theoretical one.

Instead, I heard a lot of frustration that the rest of the world seems to take notice of the I-Kiribati only to tell them they’re doomed. Several people I spoke with had already given interviews about climate change to foreign reporters. “In my case, you are the fifth person,” remarked Teewata Aromata, the director of Te Toa Matoa, an organization for people with disabilities. “People come and ask us the same questions. They see pictures of us and think we are drowning in the ocean.”

Yet the stubborn facts remain. Countries like the Maldives and Kiribati are probably disappearing — and not that long from now. I came to Kiribati expecting to find a place planning for its own destruction, but instead I found something more dispiriting: a place that, with a few exceptions, wasn’t even contemplating that destruction. “Who wants to believe that their home won’t be here?” said Tong. It was an understandable sentiment. “People here don’t even like to plan for next week. But we’ve got to be hardheaded about it.”

The mental block that prohibits thinking about what will happen when the islands are no longer inhabitable seems to be a major impediment to planning for that eventuality. In this regard, too, Kiribati is a microcosm of the world’s unwillingness to face the reality of the future. A nation disappearing off the map is something that’s never happened before and, so far, is something people seem unable to imagine.

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/07/26/feature/this-is-what-happens-when-climate-change-forces-an-entire-country-to-seek-higher-ground/?utm_term=.6d3747d5989f