On February 22nd, during an appearance before the Supreme Court for the ongoing Aadhaar hearings, Gujarat state counsel Rakesh Dwivedi acknowledged that an archive containing biometrics of all of Gujarat’s residents had been maintaining a “State Resident Data Hub” (SRDH). He said that Gujarat’s SRDH had been created under an agreement signed with the the UIDAI which provided Aadhaar related information.
While Dwivedi claimed that the SRDH data had been deleted as soon as the Act was implemented in March 2016, parallel reporting has surfaced that, inspite of Dwivedi’s claim, the Gujarat government still maintains a separate biometric database of ration card holders collected by the state’s PDS department. And since Gujarat’s PDS system requires Aadhaar to be linked to it, this database most definitely has pretty much every bit of information that the SRDH did and therefore is analgous to the SRDH.
But what exactly is a SRDH?
All state governments departments in India maintain lists of citizens (i.e. a database) that they provide services for. For e.g. the RTOs have a database of vehicles and their owners and a datase of all licensed drivers in the state. The state police has lists of convicted criminals, repeat offenders and undertrials. The PDS department has a list ontaining ration cards and their holders. But these lists (i.e. databases) are all seprate entities. Or at least they used to be.
But with the advent of Aadhaar, state governments have been tempted to include the Aadhaar number (i.e. “seeding”) with every single one of their databases. And once the Aadhaar “seeding” is complete, the state government has one number that links all the databases and is able to group them together and is able to build a complete profile of the citizen.
It is critical to note that while the individual databases were created using data given to the government by the citizens themselves, the seeding of these individual databases with Aadhaar itself does not happen without threatening the citizen with exclusion. And then linking of all the databases happens without the citizens’ explicit consent. And once all the databases are linked, the government is able to build a profile (who they are, what they own, what they do for a living, where they live, where they work etc. ) by providing all this information in one place – the SRDH.
So you can now call out the lie that the UIDAI has been perpetuating. While UIDAI consistently claims that “Aadhaar cannot be used to build citizen profiles” the presence of SRDHs in states like Gujarat and Telangana show otherwise. And just that fact that this linked data exists in one place opens up the citizen’s life to the possibility of harassment and survellience.
Telangana, where the tech savvy state has enabled its police with mobile apps that can access the SRDH in real time, is an alarming example. Telangana’s police have been able to “survey” the homes of repeat offendeers which where then “geo-tagged for periodical visits by the front-line police officers.” While the official reason is that this was done for policemen to mark their attendance using the biometric sensors of their phones, critics have said that this enables survellience and citizen harassment by the police.
There have been cases where citizens who were falsely accused of multiple crimes (by malicious elements) and subsequently acquitted (in every such case), have been added to the “repeat offenders” database by the Telegana police. And these “repeat offenders” get visited everytime a crime matching the characteristics of their “offense” is committed.
In addition to visiting “repeat offenders”, the police has been conducting periodic ‘search and cordon’ operations (more common in war torn and riot hit cities) in specific localities of Hyderabad inhabited by migrants and minorities. When these raids started in 2013, a police officer was quoted as saying this – “Though we don’t have specific inputs on stay of terror suspects in these areas but this operation will help in maintaining a close watch on such elements also.” If this is not survellience, then I dont know what is.
And the targeting in these raids is alarmingly efficient. In one such raid, the Hyderabad police claims to have visited (and searched) 3000 houses in just 3 hours. It is difficult to imagine a search of this magnitude to have happened without a targetting mechanism and so it is obvious that their SRDH linked apps helped.
Then there are the infamous “chabutra raids”. Hyderabad police frequently goes on raids late in the night and picks up young men who are seen outdoors in the streets. Their offense – being out on the streets late and night. These men are fingerprinted using portable scanners and matched against the police’s own databases for pending warrants or criminal records. Regardless of whether they have any outstanding warrants or a criminal record, these young men are detailed overnight and released (without being produced in front of a magistrate) after being asked to take a “oath”. Since this “oath” is being taken in front of the police, any violation (seen outside and being caught in another of these raids?) of the oath would lead to the prosecution of these youth under the Indian Penal Code. Isn’t this really entrapment?
All this is enough to believe that such raids are happening without legal backing. It seems unlikely that any judge would issue such sweeping search warrants without reason, in the frequency that these searches seem to be happening.
And while the police can argue all they want that they are doing all this to secure the lives of the people they serve to protect, it is very obvious that these actions run afoul of the basic tenets of human decency and rob the citizens of their dignity. And it is most certainly the Aadhaar seeded connected databases in the State Resident Data Hubs that enable these actions.
But how long is the UIDAI going to deny that such data hubs enables surveilliance and harassment? More importantly, how long are we all going to bury our heads into the ground and see Aadhaar for what it really is – architecture for mass surviellance?