Every citizen is unique, so is their identity. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), provides a unique identification card called ‘Aadhaar card’ with 12-digit Unique Identification Numbers (UIN) for the citizens of India by taking biometric and demographic details. The UIDAI is a statutory body established under the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 (“Aadhaar Act 2016”). The Act was enacted on 12 July 2016 by the Government of India. Before its statutory status, the UIDAI was part of the Planning Commission, now NITI Aayog. The first UID number was issued in November 2010. It is a digitally signed card encrypted with a QR code. Citizens can use this card for identity verification anywhere in the country. Today, this unique number card is linked with bank accounts, PAN cards, and ration cards of public distribution systems, government schemes, LPG subsidies, to receive food at a subsidized rate, and so forth. Eleven years later, the government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is planning to implement a single Aadhaar for the entire family for better welfare distribution (DUTTA, 2021).

Universal Family ID

A common family ID will be a breakthrough in India. According to government officials, the universal family ID will help in keeping track of beneficiaries of both the Central and State government schemes by making each family an “identifying unit” (DUTTA, 2021). The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeiTY) will carry out studies to plan and develop the project together with the National Informatics Centre (NIC) and the National Informatics Centre Services Inc (NICSI). As per the MeiTY, this project will make government welfare schemes more effective by eliminating “inherent deficiencies and gaps” due to “non-standard beneficiary identification”. Under the universal family registry, each family will be provided with unique IDs. This will also help to identify “family-based beneficiaries” for all Central and State government welfare programs. A common national digital platform will also be developed. In April 2021, a meeting of various patrons to discuss the implementation strategy and the involvement of ministries for smooth accomplishment was held. A nodal officer will be appointed by various central ministers for the enactment and for coordinating data sharing. A statement given by a government official said that they are studying a similar project implemented in Haryana to understand the system of the project.

Impact and Challenges of the Project

Through the implementation of the Universal Family ID, the Government will be able to ensure delivery of services without the hassle of documents and even without physical presence. Though Aadhaar contains the details of individuals, the unique number is different for all family members. Even the ration card does not have sufficient family records and it is not updated regularly. In the Universal Family ID, every detail of the family members shall be regularly updated so that the government can keep track of beneficiaries. People will no longer have to wait in government offices for schemes and certificates they need to receive. Migrant workers shall also benefit from the labour welfare schemes, the government ration scheme, and the street vendor schemes implemented through this project. Medical facilities, including health insurance, can also be linked to this ID so that universal access to health care is ensured. By linking the ID with one’s bank account, employees can track their salary as well as future benefits such as pension schemes they are eligible for. Further, social welfare schemes such as unemployment and disability benefits could be tracked easily and regularly. It also allows the government to know about the employee’s contributions and eligibility to calculate future benefits. Besides, the ID can also be used for paying taxes and to check eligibility for various loans including student loans. As the family ID includes details of family members, it will be easy to access these details for obtaining a passport and driving license. 

Governments are now adopting more advanced technologies to deliver their schemes and services. As a consequence, hacking has become a major threat to the government’s data storage. In 2019, the rate of cybercrimes reported by the National Crimes Bureau (NCB) was 63.5%, of which nearly 60% were cyber fraud. Lack of enough security can make it easy to access sensitive public information from the data center through an application programming interface (API) calls. The non-existence of strong cyber law is a serious concern in the effective implementation of the universal family ID project. Due to the absence of data protection, there is a high chance for potential abuse of the collected data. Establishing and maintaining error-free links between the person or the family and the associated number is quite challenging (The Use of the Social Security Number as the Basis for a National Citizen Identifier, 1997). The absence of privacy or leakage of data can lead to identity theft, which makes it compulsory for people to change their existing ID numbers. 

The new universal family ID project can learn from the various aspects such as the right to privacy and data protection of the Aadhaar for better implementation.

Similar Practice: Parivar Pehchan Patra, Haryana

The government of India is looking into the Parivar Pehchan Patra (PPP) scheme introduced by the Haryana government for its future universal family ID project. The PPP identity card with 8-unique digits was introduced to enable smooth delivery of the state government’s scheme to the citizens. The card ensures that no citizen is left behind in the welfare schemes and will automatically deliver the services using the code. Under this card, each family is considered a single unit. The PPP will contain personal as well as geographical details of the family. It is mandatory for families to have a PPP card to receive state government services and schemes and also for State government employees, failing which their salaries may be held back. A similar scheme is being planned to be adopted by Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. 

As part of the PPP, the government takes the Aadhaar once and puts it into the Aadhaar vault. The government can verify the individuals of the beneficiary families through this vault. Without exposing the data, PPP can be linked to all family schemes. The minority PPP family ID card was later revised by the government to “voluntary.” But to benefit from any kind of government services, the PPP card is mandatory. With a PPP card, the government can maintain a complete database of all citizens residing in the state. The government is compiling the details of families from the 2011 census (Bhatia, 2020).

Recently, the PPP came under the watch of the Punjab and Haryana High Court after a petition was filed. According to the petition, there is a chance for abuse of family data by the ruling party for its political gain and the government’s move to make Aadhaar mandatory to enroll in PPP (Sura, 2021). The government announced that PPP is completely voluntary and not mandatory for the residents of Haryana state. But the mandatory requirement of PPP cards to avail the government schemes and other basic services places people in uncertainty. Technical issues in PPP enrollment are also another side of the story. Though the project was able to make an impact, especially during the pandemic, the issues of privacy, mandatory requirements, and technical aspects still prevail.

Some International Practices

Similar to the Aadhaar card, various countries including the US, the UK, South Korea, Singapore, etc. have a Social Security Number or Resident Registration Number.

The Social Security Number (SSN) in the US is a nine-digit number issued to the citizens, permanent and temporary (working) residents in the US. It is mandatory to have SSN to avail all social security benefits, government schemes, and other services like financial services. Since the number is used for various services, the fraudulent risk and identity theft are also high. In the past few years, a number of child identity theft cases have also been reported.

National Insurance Number or NI or NIN is the UK version of SSN used primarily for tax purposes. As NIN is used for financial purposes the risks of identity theft are low. However, there are reported cases of scam calls to obtain the financial or personal details of victims.

In South Korea, the government issues a Resident Registration Number (RRN), a 13-digit number for every resident, regardless of their nationality used for identification and tracking private transactions like employment and banking.

Every Singapore permanent resident and citizen is assigned a unique card known as National Registration Identity Card (NRIC). The NRIC is used for identification, voting, and availing of financial and public services.

The primary purpose of the identification numbers is to ensure the efficient delivery of public services. The threats relating to identity theft, cyber crimes, and privacy rights exist in every identification number issued by the government. Even in a technically advanced country and a major tech hub of the world like South Korea, the citizens had to face serious intrusion in 2011. The government later adopted strict punishment. One thing we can learn from such incidents is that in India, we need to adopt strict privacy laws and punishments for cybercrimes, including identity theft. The government needs to address privacy concerns and cybercrime issues associated with the identification scheme. 

Data Protection and Right to Privacy: An Indian Scenario 

Legislatures are often criticised for assigning the least priority to issues relating to the right to privacy and data protection. The first attempt towards data protection was made in the form of the Information Technology Act, 2000, which equally incorporated the technology sector along with other sectors. Three provisions of the Act, Section 43A, Section 72A, and Sections 72 refer to personal data protection and the punishments for misusing the data. Even though the right to privacy is not mentioned as a fundamental right in the Indian constitution, in the 2017 Justice K S Puttaswamy and Anr. Vs. The Union of India case, the Supreme Court defined it as a fundamental right under Articles 14, 19, and 21. Following the judgement, a committee headed by Justice B.N. Srikrishna was appointed, which later submitted a report in 2018 to the Ministry of Electronics and Information along with a draft for the Data Protection Bill, 2018. The 2019 Data Protection Bill, which deals with privacy and data protection, is based on one of the recommendations of the committee. The Bill is still under the consideration of the Parliament. In December 2020, a member of the parliamentary committee representing the Government said that the current bill won’t be passed, stating the Bill “itself is something that is not working” (Waris, 2021). In the 2018-19 Economic Survey released by the Government, Section 4.12 justified the actions of data surveillance because of the increasing needs and for improving the economy (Rai, 2020). Considering the justifications and past legislations, little has been done by the government to ensure privacy and data protection to users. 

Way Forward

The government has adopted various policies to ensure the smooth delivery of services to the citizens. With the advancement of technology, the challenge of protecting the privacy of people has become imperative. Owing to the large geographical area, the existing digital divide in the country is acute and this has become an important point of consideration for better implementation of the project. While the government is focusing on ensuring the effortless realization of schemes, it is also essential to acknowledge as well as work towards finding a solution to this issue. Partnership with private companies can contribute towards resolving arising technical challenges efficiently. Strong security on the database can also be verified through the partnership. Further, the government can carry out mass awareness campaigns about the project and its benefits. By highlighting the cross-sectional benefits of welfare schemes and programs, the government can use the Universal Family ID to register the property of families to the databases so that it can prevent fraudulent transactions and clarify the ownership of the land (Parivar Pehchan Patra and Privacy Concerns, 2021). Apart from easy accessibility to government welfare schemes under the project, effective implementation of these schemes should also be the grail of the government’s approach in executing the universal family ID project.