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The terrible truth about surveillance, 'bio-political tattooing' and e-identity projects

Gopal Krishna | Updated on: 12 February 2017, 11:07 IST

While responding to a request for the urgent hearing in the matter of 'biometric information' based e-identity and 12-digit biometric unique identification (UID)/Aadhaar number related projects, when a three-judge Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar asked, "Surveillance to what. Is it a big deal?", the beneficial owners of World Bank Group in general and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in particular must have patted their backs with satisfaction.

The arrival of the presumptuous 'surveillance state' is linked to the emergence of a 'database state'. In Michel Foucault's 1975 book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison, he observed that surveillance is based on a system of permanent registration. That it is a decisive economic operator.

'Lesser mortals'

A chapter titled "On the Map: Making Surveillance Work" under the section Revolutions in the International Monetary System in the book Silent Revolution: The International Monetary Fund 1979-1989 corroborates Foucault's contention.

The chapter in the book, which was published by the IMF in 2001, deals with the principles and procedures of surveillance. It admits that: "Surveillance, a central pillar of IMF activities and responsibilities in the modern era, is not an easy concept to grasp." It will have us accept that only the heads of public institutions can grasp and communicate the meaning of 'surveillance'.

Also read - Mandatory Aadhaar: Govt has gone against SC, privacy remains the only issue

IMF commiserates with the lesser mortals stating that it knows that 'surveillance' does sound terrible. This is understandable.

But it does not sound terrible to the three-judge bench.

The spirit of international cooperation

Jacob A Frenkel, an IMF official is quoted in the book. He argues that the word 'surveillance' should be made to sound benign. It "should give way to concepts of cooperation, partnership, and consultation; of bringing on board the rest of the world's considerations." This publication states, "In practice, surveillance has encapsulated all of the above notions, but at its best it has been motivated by and has itself promoted a spirit of international cooperation."

This publication informs that the first official use of the term came in June 1974. IMF was concerned that "Few, if any countries, however, were prepared to be subjected to surveillance in that strong sense. The 1980s therefore became a decade of experimentation, in which the staff and management of the Fund constantly probed and prodded to see how far they could go in persuading countries to respond positively to Fund analysis and advice."

The 'silent revolution'

This concern of IMF is deeply touching. But IMF's efforts did yield results and by the mid-1990s, a "silent revolution" had happened in countries like India, it infers.

By 2013, citizens of 35 countries and their heads came to know exactly what 'surveillance' meant due to the disclosures made by Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Chelesa Manning, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.

Unsurprisingly, it sounded terrible to them.

Both the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US and the World Bank Group have a different and benevolent sounding meaning in mind. The publication admits, "Even among IMF staff, those questions did not yield uniform answers."

This incomprehension among them is understandable because it admittedly means "close observation especially of a suspected person."

Public institutions taken for a ride

Heads of financial institutions, the US President and Indian Prime Minister appear to be busy getting this dictionary meaning of "surveillance" changed through their power of persuasion, peer pressure and advertising to avoid confusion that still exists despite relentless and sincere efforts at least since 1974. Public institutions, including the judiciary, seem to have been taken for a ride.

This IMF publication states, "If surveillance was to have any substance, the Fund would have to develop that influence: through the power of persuasion (Fund management and staff to country authorities), through peer pressure (country to country in the forum of the Fund), and through publicity (Fund to the public). The relative merit of each of these channels was always the subject of much debate. Was publicity appropriate, or would it conflict with and even nullify the benefits of persuasion and peer pressure?"

IMF asks itself, "Did surveillance mean that the IMF was expected to be a financial Interpol, seeking out and punishing errant behavior, or should its role be more that of a faithful confidant of those entrusted with implementing macroeconomic policies around the world?"

Have most public institutions in India become "a faithful confidant" of World Bank Group?

Military spending

There is a revelation in the publication that IMF is concerned with the "viability of military spending" as well.

IMF took a formal position on the role of military spending in national economic policy in October 1991. At that time, executive directors concluded that, "as military expenditure can have an important bearing on a member's fiscal policy and external position, information about such expenditure may be necessary to permit a full and internally consistent assessment of the member's economic position and policies".

If this is not an exercise in surveillance, which admittedly sounds 'terrible', what else is it?

The mushrooming of e-ID projects

Earlier on 23 April 2010, the World Bank launched its eTransform Initiative by signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with France and South Korea besides transnational companies like L-1 Identity Solutions, IBM, Gemalto, Pfizer and others. The World Bank is currently funding 14 projects related to e-government and e-ID around the world.

The Supreme Court judges may have missed watching Gattaca, a 1997 movie written and directed by Andrew Niccol, which dwells on a genetic registry database uses biometrics to classify "valids" and "invalids".

If the 12-digit biometric UID/Aadhaar number based surveillance is not abandoned the way it has been abandoned in China, Australia, Philippines, the US, the UK and other countries, the Court will soon be dealing with "valid" and "invalid" Indians. The emergence of such architecture poses a lethal threat to very idea of India.

Once lawmakers become part of the govt, they become enlightened about the benefits of surveillance

Referring to the incident of surveillance of his mobile phones, in an article titled

My Call Detail Records and A Citizen's Right to Privacy

published in Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu and English, BJP leader Arun Jaitley, as Leader of Opposition, Rajya Sabha, wrote, "This incident throws up another legitimate fear. We are now entering the era of the Aadhaar number. The Government has recently made the existence of the Aadhaar number as a condition precedent for undertaking several activities; from registering marriages to execution of property documents. Will those who encroach upon the affairs of others be able to get access to bank accounts and other important details by breaking into the system? If this ever becomes possible the consequences would be far messier."

It is clear that once lawmakers become part of the government they become enlightened about the benefits of surveillance.

A series of coincidences

It is relevant to reiterate in this context that the then Chairman of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Nandan

Nilekani, was given ID Limelight Award at the ID WORLD International Congress on 16 November 2010 in Milan, Italy, where Safran Morpho (Safran group) was a key sponsor of the ID Congress.

Its subsidiary, Sagem Morpho Security Pvt Ltd was then awarded the contract for the purchase of Biometric Authentication Devices on 2 February 2011 by the UIDAI.

UID/Aadhaar based surveillance does not end with collection of fingerprints and iris scans, it goes quite beyo

Coincidentally, in 2009, a similar award was given to the head of Pakistan's National Database Registration Authority (NADRA), which successfully implemented a UID/Aadhaar-like project, which has been shared with authorities in USA as per the cables leaked by Wikileaks.

Is it a coincidence that Morpho (Safran group) sponsored the award to chairman, UIDAI and the former got a contract from the latter?

It may also be noted that UIDAI awarded contracts to three companies namely, Satyam Computer Services Ltd (Mahindra Satyam), as part of a "Morpho led consortium", L-1 Identity Solutions Operating Company and Accenture Services Pvt Ltd of US for the "Implementation of Biometric Solution for UIDAI" on 30 July 2010.

Missing documents

Following Central Information Commission (CIC)'s intervention in the matter of application filed by Col Mathew Thomas, an octogenarian defence scientist, and submissions by the author on his behalf,

UIDAI shared its contract agreement with French and US biometric technology companies. But crucial pages are missing from the contract agreement after the CIC heard the matter on 10 September 2013.

After examining these documents with regard to the Accenture for Biometric Technology, it has come to notice that the first 237 pages appear to be in order but after that, there is a one pager titled Annexure J Technical Bid (Technical Bid as submitted by M/s Accenture Services Pvt Ltd). And that Technical Bid document is missing. After that, there is a one pager titled Annexure K Commercial Bid Commercial (Bid as submitted by M/s Accenture Services Pvt Ltd). That Commercial Bid document is also missing.

With regard to the L-1 Identity Solutions for Biometric Technology, one noticed that the first 236 pages appear to be in order, but after that there is a one pager titled Annexure I non-disclosure agreement as submitted by L-1 Identity Solutions Operating Company Pvt Ltd. Even this document is missing. After that there is a one pager titled Annexure J Technical Bid as submitted by L-1 Identity Solutions Operating Company Pvt Ltd, which is also unsurprisingly missing. As is the one page titled Annexure K Commercial Bid as submitted by L-1 Identity Solutions Operating Company Pvt Ltd.

The MeitY, where the idea of UID was incubated, has been misleading state govts, media and citizens

When this was pointed out to the new Information Commissioner, he ordered the Registrar, CIC to check compliance by UIDAI's earlier order. The Registrar then informed that the new Information Commissioner has allowed UIDAI to furnish limited financial information.

In effect, he changed the earlier order of the CIC without authority to do so. The Writ Petition (Civil) No. 9143/2014 in this regard is pending in Delhi High Court. The next date of hearing has been fixed for February 21, 2017.

In the meanwhile, the appointment of J Satyanarayana as part-time Chairman of UIDAI on 6 September 2016 does not inspire even an iota of confidence. At page no. 46-47, the report Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology that examined the work of Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY), Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, asked about the surveillance by the NSA.

J Satyanarayana, as Secretary, DeitY, formally communicated that India has no problem if they conduct surveillance for metadata. In fact, it is acceptable and tolerable but "incursion into the content will not be tolerated and is not tolerable."

Notably, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), which has been formed by giving the status of ministry to the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) of Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, have been misleading state governments, media and the citizens. The idea of UID was incubated in this very department.

Nothing to fear?

The old maxim, 'if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear' has been given a very public burial. This has been thoroughly debunked.

Notably, this myth is attributed to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Database State, a report from the UK states, 'In October 2007, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (Department) lost two discs containing a copy of the entire child benefit database.' Only blind faith in a Utopian State can persuade people to think that they have nothing to fear after trusting their personal sensitive information to a 'Database State'.

If UID/Aadhaar enabled Biometric Attendance System is indeed a "digital equivalent" of the "age-old attendance register", why did National Human Right Commission (NHRC) object to radio collars, which can also be argued by sophists to be a "digital equivalent"?

Notably, the Union Ministry of External Affairs agreed with NHRC's assessment. The ministry informed Parliament that some 18 students has been detained and released with radio monitoring devices on their ankles, pending completion of the investigations for possible involvement in the irregularities.

"We have also strongly protested the radio collars as unacceptable, which should be removed immediately." If the "digital equivalent" means biometric equivalent as well then it makes the radio collar and DNA based identity and attendance will also be deemed equivalent to "age-old attendance register". It is quite evident that such claims are deeply misleading.

'Bio-political tattooing'

Giorgio Agamben, a 74-year-old Italian philosopher and professor at the University of Venice and New York University, predicted in 2004 that the "bio-political tattooing" is the precursor to what would later turned into a normal identity registration of a good citizen.

It provides for a continuity between the world of the Nazi concentration camp and contemporary democracy. It paves way for a genocidal liberal order. Biometrics "concern the enrolment and the filing away of the most private and incommunicable aspect of subjectivity", which consequents into the capture of the human body by the authorities for good. Till now such assault on the private human body was an exception, now it is becoming the norm.

Bio-political tattooing' is the precursor to what will turn into normal identity registration

Surveillance has been used as a tool to shape the relationship between the citizen and the State. Both identification and surveillance have co-existed since times immemorial, but it is now assuming frightening architecture with the marriage of statistics of biological characteristics, and biometric technology with digital sculpture.

The reference to "such other biological attributes" in Section 2 (g) of Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 and the definition of the "biometrics" under Information Technology (Reasonable security practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or information) Rules, 2011, under section 87 read with section 43A of Information Technology Act, 2000 underline that it includes "the technologies that measure and analyse human body characteristics, such as 'fingerprints', 'eye retinas and irises', 'voice patterns', 'facial patterns', 'hand measurements' and 'DNA' for authentication purposes". It is abundantly clear that the plan of UID/Aadhaar based surveillance does not end with collection of fingerprints and iris scan, it goes quite beyond it.

Observing suspects only?

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, surveillance means "close observation, especially of a suspected person".

So far, the Supreme Court has not had the occasion to examine the most glaring aspect of cyber biometric surveillance, which entails close observation of all the present and future Indians indiscriminately as suspects.

If surveillance is not a big deal why is Edward Snowden in Moscow since 23 June 2013?

Notably, colonial powers had suspect identification offices in Egypt and India after the development of biometric identification by Sir Francis Galton, an English eugenicist who supported slavery. In Imprint of Raj: How Fingerprinting was born in Colonial India (2003), Chandak Sengoopta reveals how biometric identification technique was fine-tuned by the Bengal Police. Eugenics and slavery has long been abandoned, the scientific claims of biometrics too have been found to be dubious by reputed institutions.

If surveillance is not a big deal why is Edward Snowden in Moscow since 23 June 2013? Why has Australian journalist Julian Assange been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 19 July 2012? And why was Chelsea Elizabeth Manning (Bradley Edward Manning) sentenced to 35 years imprisonment in August 2013?

If surveillance is indeed such an innocent act, then why is the entire US establishment paranoid about surveillance from Russia?

Isn't the word 'surveillance' being made to sound benign as desired by IMF?

Edited by Aleesha Matharu

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First published: 14 January 2017, 6:54 IST
Gopal Krishna @CatchNews

The author is a public policy researcher and a member of Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties (CFCL), which is campaigning against surveillance technologies since 2010. He appeared before the Parliamentary Standing on Finance that examined and trashed the Aadhaar Bill, 2010. His doctoral thesis was on corporate crimes and accountability of public institutions. He is editor at www.toxicswatch.org