Debating Nandan Nilekani’s Aadhaar Claims

A string of critical commentary and analysis of the Aadhaar system led its creator and former Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) chief Nandan Nilekani to defend the project, which was introduced in 2009 as an optional 12-digit identification tool for Indian citizens. Under the Modi-led NDA government’s rule, it has been projected as the single choice for all our identity verification-related needs.

In the interview with the The Hindu Business Line, Nilekani junked allegations claiming loopholes in the biometrics process used by the UIDAI for the Aadhaar project, which is linked to important Public Distribution System schemes like ration disbursements.

However, his defence raised more questions, and in a rebuttal published in Medianama, Anand Venkatanarayanan counters the claims made by Nilekani.

1. High Error Rate in Aadhaar’s Biometrics

Terming the 95 percent success rate being attributed to the Aadhaar based mechanism as “useless” at the scale at which it is being implemented, highlighted the flaw in Nilekani’s argument.

Elaborating his point, Venkatanarayanan explained that even by Nilekani’s estimates, 5 crore people, every week, are denied rations because of the linking of the faulty Aadhaar system to the PDS.

At the error rate of 5% that Nandan Nilekani indicates, even in the ideal case, for a period of 1 week, the number of failures would be 5/100 * 1 Billion = 5 Crore incorrectly denied transactions .

Venkatanarayanan further adds that due to the nature of the Aadhaar based system, almost everyone who tries to use the system will, at some point or the other, face authentication failures. However, some of these will be clustered around a smaller set of people, who would thus find “the older system of not using biometrics far better than the newer system.”

2. Aadhaar Has Led to 50k Cr in Savings

Rebutting Nilekani’s second claim, Venkatanarayanan says the the biometric system converts “inherent statistical uncertainty of biometric authentication with accrued savings, and hence is a fantasy bubble.”

He says because of its flaws, the system would count as savings, all denials of entitlements, to even those who were denied because of authentication errors inherent in the system.

If 10% of the entitled persons before were denied their rations due to the authentication errors inherent in the system, would that count as savings in the new UID linked PDS System? That would be a yes, correct?

3. OTP as an Alternative to Biometrics

Venkatanarayanan debunks Nilekani’s third claim by raising questions over the coverage and reliability of mobile networks in rural areas that are essential for receiving OTPs which serve as an alternative to the biometrics system.

The latest data from TRAI indicates that rural teledensity is at 52.43%. This means when biometric fingerprint verification fails, there is a 47% probability that the person may be denied their entitlements. Given that quality of coverage is not good in rural areas, it is quite obvious why people are climbing trees to get their PDS entitlements.

4. The Curious Case of Mismatches

Countering Nandan Nilekani’s claim, Venkatanarayanan adds that the reason behind the Aadhaar system not working properly is because the UIDAI system design is flawed.

He goes on to add that UID technology and system design in the current form is not the solution, “as it is rigid, fragile and only works when there is a lot of certainty about the operational vectors involved”.

5. Aadhaar Comparable to Facebook, Google

Faced with questions over a faulty UID system being forced on the people in the form of Aadhaar, Nilekani sought to defend the Aadhaar project by comparing it to other platforms which cater to a billion plus people. He claimed that for such a project, to achieve 95% success in a short span of 7 years is big feat.

However, unimpressed by the argument, Venkatanarayanan in the Medianama rebuttal calls it a “textbook example of false equivalence.” Raising the question of privacy and security of confidential data, he adds:

Neither Google nor Facebook are champions of privacy concerns. As an individual, I can choose not to use these tools. But not having a UID means it is no longer possible to be a law abiding citizen of india after the mandatory PAN-UID linkage, notified by GOI.

He also argues that Aadhaar linked UIDAI system’s 95% success rate is nothing to brag about as its failures will lead to the project’s downfall.

Google and Facebook would not exist if their authentication works only 95% of the time or if 5% of WhatsApp messages don’t get delivered.

6. Theft of Data from Aadhaar’s Database

Arguing that while there is not enough information about security leaks, there, however, is enough data to show that the ecosystem around it is prone to leakage.

Venkatanarayanan in his argument, explains that because of the model that the project uses, it leaves it prone to theft of data at source, i.e not during enrolment, but during verification process when a information is being gathered.

He explains that because of the sensitive nature of the hardware being used, the pervasive use of biometrics exposes the ecosystem to being compromised.

“Aadhaar Has Helped Millions”

Venkatanarayanan calls Nandan Nilekani’s claim as “factually incorrect”. He adds that the number of people that have an ID because of Aadhaar is not anywhere close to the claims made by Nilekani.

Read here: Nanadan Nilenkani’s full interview with The Hindu Business Line.

Read here: Anand Venkatanarayanan rebuttal published in Medianama.