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3 Ways Aadhaar Data Reinforce Existing Digital Inequalities in India

By Guest Writer on October 22, 2020

aadhaar data digital inequalities

Digital identity as a tool of governance promises the inclusion of the marginalised and undocumented populations. There are major efforts globally under programs that espouse United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted in 2015 to ‘provide legal identity for all’ by 2030. These efforts are closely watched by academics and practitioners alike, who warn that the implementation of digital identity programs needs to protect human rights by reducing the risk of discrimination.

In this context, this blog discusses the findings from my research into the impact of Aadhaar – India’s digital and biometric identity program. Aadhaar works using iris scans and fingerprints assign a unique digital identity number to all Indian residents within a networked national database. This networked database can be queried in various ways to authenticate an individual’s identity and verify their demographic information while accessing public services or in private commercial settings.

My research conceptualises both ‘identification’ as a need and the ‘datafication’ of lives and social processes. This enables reflection on the possible discrimination and potential for bias within Aadhaar use and how such impacts can be carried forward by data-flows across to other areas of user’s lives.

I investigated these issues among informal workers groups – of cab-drivers verifying their identity with Aadhaar with ride-hailing apps and of domestic workers who use Aadhaar on ‘blue-collar’ recruitment websites.

The research was done using a lens of ‘social justice’ which looks at if Aadhaar provides to its users an equal standing within the society across economic, cultural, and political domains. By taking this approach there were 3 major research findings which also apply widely to how digital identities work:

Asymmetry in  Digital Identity Formalisation

Aadhaar opens new avenues for informal workers to prove themselves using digital and paper-based identity solutions to seek employment on digital platforms. Though it has been seen that this usage of Aadhaar is relegated to being a signal of trust to the recruiters who would be the upper/middle-class clients for these digital platforms. The cab-drivers and domestic-workers as users themselves are incentivized or encouraged to undergo verification through Aadhaar.

But Aadhaar or other digital verification is not expected for the cab-riding clients or household employers. The workers contend that there is a direct impact by how digital platforms replace existing local mutual ‘trust’ networks, sometimes in place for decades. The cab-drivers or domestic workers earlier could seek informal work through local neighbourhood networks and could recognize potential ‘good’ employers referred via word-of-mouth by their peers.

These asymmetries extend to the formalization of the work practices – the informal workers are deemed only to be trusted after a formal mechanism of verification, but no avenues for formal knowledge of their working conditions and employers are undertaken by the digital platforms.

Trade Off: Data Monetisation for Financial Inclusion

At its core, verification using digital identity under Aadhaar is presented as a direct economic benefit of inclusion to informal workers – with verified bank accounts and access to digital payment solutions. This is used to nudge them to hand over their personal data to the employing platforms and sometimes engaging with biometric surveillance in the process.

But without legal protection for data and privacy in the Indian context, there is a direct loss of control of the workers’ personal data. The platforms derive economic value through monetisation of worker data which is available without any legitimate guidelines of data-use. This works to increase in the platform’s ‘verified’ user-base and to increase digital payments options driving higher demand from the clients of the platforms. All these form the core of the business and revenue models of digital platforms.

For instance, the recruitment portals use data monetisation through the sale of premium services and subscriptions to both recruiters and job seekers alike. Similarly, ride-hailing app platforms use such verified personal data to increase demand, profitability and the geographical coverage of the platform’s usage.

So, while the workers do find new avenues for job-seeking under these digital platforms, their underlying pay and work conditions in most cases have no formal relevance to the data submitted and digital identity verification used. Enabling inclusion in this mode of handing over data without due protection has helped platforms gain the most economic value by the direct accumulation of personal data of workers.

Inconsistent Consent and Security Issue Redress

There are questionable practices in how consent is attained for Aadhaar use and its linkages to various users. The interviewed informal workers acknowledge a routine signing and filling up of forms during enrolment and linkages – without being provided time or capacity to fully understand what is being signed.

Many of these processes use English language forms and websites despite the acknowledged need for vernacular language needs. The informal workers who are also disadvantaged in data-literacy face seemingly ‘mandatory’ Aadhaar linkages pushed by private players like telecom companies. This also includes employers like when ride-hailing apps companies push cab-drivers to provide Aadhaar authentication.

A further aspect of inequity is highlighted when issues of security in Aadhaar use surfaced. Under the government’s evolving guidance sharing Aadhaar number was officially considered a privacy issue and it was deemed safe to use ‘virtual’ identity number generated based one’s Aadhaar and use mobile ‘one-time password’ texts as a second level authentication on online processes.

These issues cut across all classes of users, but redressals provided mainly depended on the use of the internet. This has meant that user groups like informal workers who are already vulnerable to these security issues are further disadvantaged by having an unequal reach to the online-only solutions. The interviewed domestic workers – almost all of whom use feature phones and not smartphones – reported it difficult to engage with the online process.

Users like these are pushed to access paid governmental kiosks or more expensive and possibly exploitative private browsing centres as intermediaries to access solutions for fundamental security issues which are freely available for upper/middle-class users.

Emerging Issue of Data-Sharing Arrangements

There is growing evidence that digital identity can enable fair participation for marginalised users. But as my research ultimately signals the overarching need for the use of digital identity can result in and even be driven by unfair economic, cultural and procedural/political exploitation of vulnerable users and their personal data.

The propagation of such negative impacts is also growing as it has become easier for Aadhaar to be demanded as a de facto identity even if it is only supposed to be voluntary for the use of private sector services. There is also an urgent need to determine the limits of how ‘open-architecture’ systems share data across platforms – especially in the light of India’s emerging ‘Data Empowerment And Protection  Architecture’ framework which centres Aadhaar in its design.

Transparency demands must be made from such governmental data-sharing arrangements especially as applicable in the under-researched global South situations. Mechanisms of accountability for monetisation of personal data from governmental and private players alike need to be established including by studying the impact on vulnerable populations. This must be mirrored with advocacy of data-rights specifically among vulnerable populations alongside a strong push for programs on data-literacy.

Ultimately my research indicates that Aadhaar provides an increased benefit to the already formalised section of the economy, reinforcing existing inequalities brought about by the impact of data-flows that inevitably follows digital identification.

By Shyam Krishna, a Doctoral candidate at Royal Hollow, University of London. His research focuses on the overlap between the gig-economy and digital identity.

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One Comment to “3 Ways Aadhaar Data Reinforce Existing Digital Inequalities in India”

  1. Franklin Otis says:

    Thanks for the very interesting write-up about the issues associated with Aadhaar. I had not thought of Aadhaar as a replacement for informal, local trust networks. After reading your post, my mind initially went to the research done which shows the “attentional capture” as a symptom of poverty – as much burden on cognitive impact as losing a full night’s sleep in one study. Taking part in Aadhaar, which requires some digital experience and English knowledge, is a far greater burden to overcome for those in poverty. I think this aspect would also further exacerbate social and economic inequality.