Monday, July 6, 2009

National ID cards: Are privacy fears overstated?

My response to a comment in an email group, which stated that fears of privacy were overstated in my earlier note on the national ID card.


The world-wide fear over identity data confidentiality is basically a product of the Holocaust. That was the worst-ever misuse of census information in history. Jews were required to carry ID cards and the German government had hired IBM to track the Jewish population using a unique 5-digit number assigned to every member of the Jewish population. The memories of the Auschwitz tattoo still lingers!

Much later in the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide took place. In the 1930s, the Belgian colonial government had introduced ethnic-group based ID cards in Rwanda. When the 1994 genocide began, anyone with "Tutsi" marked on the card was sure to be killed at a check point.

Take India. The 2002 pogrom on Muslims in Gujarat is an excellent demonstration. Here, the demographic composition of neighbourhoods was drawn up by the RSS much before the riots and it was superimposed on the records of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to identify which shop is whose. This turned out to be a very "efficient" method of killing people. Now, we can argue that this had happened even without ID cards. Yes...but imagine what would have been the state if it was available electronically. The entire operation could have been much more systematic! The whole point is to hold such information sensitive and confidential, so that the possibilities of misuse are minimised.

Your point on whether privacy issues are that important in a State like Kerala is well taken. Yet, I would say, "we never know". The ID card copy that we give to a mobile company has only very limited information. A national ID card is supposed to have a good 64 KB of all kind sof information about people.

I am not against electronic cards for specified purposes. We need them. The question is "what is the social benefit of centralizing all personal information and access to welfare schemes into one smart card?"

Now, even if assume that privacy is not a big problem, other problems remain: cost, effectiveness of technology, potential benefits and so on.

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