In India, you must forfeit your fingerprints, face, and iris in order to receive food, healthcare, education, and social security benefits. This is all thanks to Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric identity system, and the poster child for “Big ID” programs taking the world by storm.
Similar to Big Tech, Big ID refers to the market of actors selling and profiting from digital identification systems and infrastructure. These systems often involve biometric data collection and aim to replace or complement government ID systems.
Aadhar was supposed to improve access to public services, but instead created a privacy-harming tool for exclusion: between 1.5 to 2 million people in India lost access to benefits, including over one million children being denied access to school and women unable to access maternity care.
So, if Aadhaar is so harmful, why do Big ID programs continue to gain traction? The answer: People who stand to profit from selling these systems have strategically designed false narratives to advance their own interests. The consequences of accepting their lies as truth are dire, as India’s experience with digital ID has laid bare.
In our report, we debunk these insidious myths that paint Big ID as a necessary, safe, and useful tool. In reality, these digital ID programs promote coercive extraction of data from the most vulnerable. They are an assault on our human rights, and must be stopped. This blog highlights our major takeaways from the report.
Debunking the myths
➔ Myth #1 Big ID programs are needed to give people legal identities
Digital IDs are not needed, and unlike with a physical ID, technical failures in overly complex Big ID systems can prevent someone from being identified. For example, due to glitches in the Aadhaar system, beneficiaries who were alive were declared dead in India.
➔ Myth #2 Big ID is needed to empower people
Big ID systems empower industry, not people. In practice, digital IDs often make it more difficult to access services, limit people’s control over their own identity, and force vulnerable communities like refugees, religious and caste minorities, journalists, dissidents, and activists, who are already over-surveilled, to be more visible, putting them at greater risk.
➔ Myth #3 Big ID systems do not create surveillance states
Digital ID systems fuel surveillance. Both the design and legal framework behind Aadhaar — that Big ID advocates are promoting around the world — encourage maximizing government tracking powers, made even worse by the lack of strong data protection laws.
➔ Myth #4 Big ID is needed to reform the welfare state
A digital ID cannot fix the underlying social and political causes for exclusion of marginalized communities. What’s more, Aadhaar in fact exacerbates the exclusion of these groups.
➔ Myth #5 Big ID programs bring efficiency
Big ID’s digital infrastructure can be confusing, inconvenient, and make it more difficult for people at risk to access social services. Studies have shown Aadhaar actually increased transaction costs for welfare recipients, delayed payments, and decreased distribution to qualified recipients.
➔ Myth #6 Big ID programs enable transparency
Big ID uses centralized decision-making systems to authenticate identities, where decisions are made within an opaque “black box” — the opposite of transparency. Aadhaar also walked back right to information laws, making it nearly impossible for people to understand why they were being denied access to vital services.
➔ Myth #7 Big ID programs are not coercive nor mandatory
If you need a digital ID to prove your identity or access benefits, or there is no viable alternative to participating, it is mandatory, not optional.
➔ Myth #8 Establishing the uniqueness of individuals is a crucial need that only Big ID can fulfill
The presumption that we want the government to have a record of each individual’s “uniqueness” is flawed. People have a right to anonymity, and to choose how, and when, they want to appear to the state, or to commercial actors.
➔ Myth #9 Big ID is needed for financial inclusion
Wrong again. Financial inclusion is possible without Big ID. What’s more, financial inclusion via Big ID privileges harmful data-extractive models that hurt the most vulnerable.
➔ Myth #10 Biometric verification is necessary, safe, and reliable
Biometric extraction is irreversible, and its collection and use poses a serious threat to the rights to privacy, integrity, equality, and non-discrimination. The Aadhaar system has also shown just how often biometrics fail and how easily they can be manipulated.
➔ Myth #11 Big ID systems ensure that your personal information is safe
Aadhaar enabled new forms of fraud, which are difficult to track, understand, and remedy. And by centralizing all sorts of data alongside expanding access, the system has led to some of the largest data breaches ever recorded.
➔ Myth #12 Big ID programs are reliable tools for national security
Aadhaar enrollments were handled by private actors with incentives to register as many individuals as possible. As a result, the database is riddled with fake accounts and is not a reliable tool for any use.
Where do we go from here?
India’s experience with Aadhaar starkly illustrates the dangers of Big ID programs. Mexico’s and Afghanistan’s destructive digital ID systems provide additional cautionary tales. Let us reflect on these lessons learned, and work to ensure harmful Big ID programs are no longer recklessly rolled out around the world.
Help us debunk Big ID myths by spreading the word and sharing this post. You can also read our full report to learn more.