In the space of one election cycle, authoritarian governments, moneyed elites and fringe hackers figured out how to game elections, bypass democratic processes, and turn social networks into battlefields. Facebook, Google and Twitter – where our politics now takes place – have lost control and are struggling to claw it back. As our lives migrate online, we are gradually moving into a world of datafied citizens and real-time surveillance. The entire political landscape has changed, with profound consequences for democracy.
Written by Martin Moore, Democracy Hacked: Political Turmoil and Information Warfare in the Digital Age, is a compelling account of how democracy is being disrupted by the tech revolution, and what can be done to get us back on track. The following are excerpts from the chapter "Survellaince Democracy" of the book.
Tembhli, a remote rural village in northern Maharashtra, about 250 miles north of Mumbai, is rarely visited by high-powered politicians or prominent dignitaries. But on Wednesday, 29 September 2010, it found itself hosting not just the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, but the president of Congress, Sonia Gandhi; the chief and deputy chief ministers and the governor of Maharashtra; and the head of the recently established Unique Identification Authority of India, Nandan Nilekani. It was this last figure, the least well known of the distinguished group, who was the reason behind the visit, and who would subsequently play the most important role in its aftermath. Nilekani and the politicians were there to give out the first ten ‘unique identifiers’ to residents of Tembhli. These ten people received their own twelve-digit number, a number that would, from that day forward, distinguish each of them from every other Indian citizen, and indeed – combined with their biometric data – from every other citizen in the world. “With this,” Sonia Gandhi said, “Tembhli has got a special importance in the map of India. People of Tembhli will lead the rest of the country. It is a historic step towards strengthening the people of our nation.”
Governments of all stripes are prone to exaggerated rhetoric, but in this instance, Gandhi was proved right when she proclaimed that “starting from this tiny hamlet, the scheme will reach more than a billion people of this country.” Despite the change of government in 2014, by April 2016 a billion Indians had been allocated their unique identifier. By 2018 the number had exceeded 1.1 billion, out of a total population of just over 1.3 billion. It was, in the words of a Harvard Business School report, a “hugely ambitious project”, “the largest-scale project of its kind in the world”. Aadhaar, as the project was called, was “unique in its scale and ambition”.3 Each Aadhaar identifier included not just a twelve-digit number, but all ten fingerprints, iris scans from both eyes, and a photograph of each person’s face (with the potential for facial recognition later). By combining the number with one element of biometric data, the government believed, it could ensure that every Indian citizen had a single, verifiable, machine-readable identity. With this verifiable identity a citizen could open a bank account, receive welfare or pension payments, pay tax, apply for a driving license, or receive healthcare, regardless of literacy. In a country known for its administrative torpor and tortuous bureaucracy, where – in 2013 – only forty per cent of children’s births were even registered, such a scheme had the potential to let India leapfrog other democratic countries into the digital era, and make government not just digitally enabled but digitally empowered.
Yet this, for critics of the scheme, was one of its many flaws. “Aadhaar marks a fundamental shift in citizen–state relations,” Pranesh Prakash from India’s Centre for the Internet and Society wrote in the Hindustan Times, “from ‘We the People’ to ‘We the Government’.” Civil society activists objected to the government’s enhanced power, and the relative unaccountability of the body running Aadhaar, headed by Nandan Nilekani until 2014. “In effect,” tech developer and activist Kiran Jonnalagadda wrote, “they are beyond the rule of law.” Others had practical objections.
Biometric identification often did not work. A database of this size and importance was bound to attract hackers. Leaks were inevitable. Indeed, the Tribune newspaper in January 2018 revealed that it had been able to buy a service, for 500 rupees (less than $10), that gave it access to any of up to one billion Aadhaar details. Yet such objections were written off as ‘scaremongering’ and Aadhaar critics as “activists of the upper crust, upper class, wine ’n cheese, Netflix-watching social media elite”. On top of which, despite an Indian Supreme Court judgment in August 2017 that affirmed the fundamental right of Indians to privacy, by early 2018 Aadhaar had achieved such momentum as to appear unstoppable. If the government was able to navigate the various legislative challenges to the scheme, then there was also a queue of other nations keen to adopt something similar.
As the government pushed Aadhaar towards every interaction the state had with the citizen, evidence mounted of failures in the system.
In the north-eastern state of Jharkhand, an eleven-year-old girl died of starvation after her family stopped receiving their government food ration. Their ration card, the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy reported, “was not linked to Aadhaar”. The centre also reported on data, taken from the government’s websites, showing that in Rajasthan, where receiving rations was dependent on Aadhaar authentication, between a quarter and a third of people with ration cards did not receive rations between September 2016 and July 2017. In some ration shops, after having spent hours trying and failing to get their fingerprints read by the biometric machines, people lost their temper and smashed the machines on the ground.
Across India there were reports of machines not recognizing fingerprints, or only recognizing them after multiple attempts. Old people’s prints turned out to be more difficult to read, as were those of manual workers and fishermen. Since the system presumes guilt rather than innocence, the burden of proof lies with the citizen, not with the state. To claim a ration, apply for a scholarship or buy a train ticket, you have to prove who you are before receiving it. The obligation lies with the citizen to prove she is not a fraud. Even if she is not, and the failure is not with her but with the system, she pays for the system’s failure, not the government. To dispute a decision made by the machine means going to the nearest large town – often many miles away – and convincing an official that the problem is with the machine or the digital record, not with you. It is not surprising that some people wrecked Aadhaar machines in their rage.
While the system was found to reduce agency in citizens, it empowered those in positions of authority. Central government was able to make public services conditional on authentication by Aadhaar (despite repeated court rulings that Aadhaar be voluntary, not mandatory). This conditionality could then be extended to the level and type of public services available to individuals. In fact, it had to be for many services – distinguishing pensioners from non-pensioners, for example. Yet in this conditionality, there is plenty of scope for harm and abuse. In 2017 the independent media site Scroll.in reported a rising number of HIV-positive patients who were dropping out of treatment programmes because they were required to use their Aadhaar numbers and were fearful of their condition becoming public.
Equally, while Aadhaar itself did not provide any information about caste, ethnicity, religion or language, once it was linked to other databases, most notably the National Population Register, then it became possible to identify people by group. Formal group identification by the state has an ignominious history. During the apartheid era in South Africa, the penultimate number on the South African identity card indicated race. In the Rwandan genocide in 1994, anyone who had ‘Tutsi’ on their identification was liable to be killed. In Nazi Germany in 1938, every Jewish citizen had ‘J’ stamped on their ID cards and passports. In India, where political and religious divisions are closely intertwined, there is good reason to be anxious about new opportunities for group identification.
Thanks to Aadhaar, companies started to build services using unique identification. A series of ‘trust platforms’ emerged, built on top of Aadhaar, where employers – and others – could access and authenticate people’s identity. A company called TrustID advertised itself as “India’s first, unique and comprehensive online verification platform”. Through TrustID an employer could check whether a potential employee had any criminal or civil convictions, or whether that person had a good or bad reputation (based on a news search and social media profiling). The company even encouraged women to check up on potential husbands they had found via marriage websites. Other international companies integrated Aadhaar into existing services. This is similar to the way in which companies work with platforms like Facebook to profile, and target, individuals based on their personal information – except in this instance doing it via the government. All the same questions about trust, privacy, freedom and power arise, with even greater political potency. The state and private companies are in partnership to track citizens constantly and to gather as much data as they can on them – data that they can then use for commercial or political purposes. This opaque, asymmetrical knowledge of the citizen seems like the reverse of what was intended by democratic transparency, especially in the absence of strong privacy and data protection. “Totalitarian states often do this against the wishes of their citizens,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the president of the Centre for Policy Research, writes, yet “in our democracy, our consent is being mobilized to put an imprimatur over more control and arbitrariness.”
In August 2017, the Supreme Court of India came to a unanimous 9–0 decision that Article 21 of the Indian Constitution did guarantee a fundamental right to privacy. As such, it was not lawful for the government to make it mandatory for people to identify themselves using a unique identifier like Aadhaar, except in specific circumstances. To some this looked like a huge blow to the grand project. The Supreme Court decision “raises serious questions about Aadhaar”, lawyer Adarsh Ramanujan argued in India’s Financial Express, and appeared to send “a direction to the central government to create a regime to ensure that privacy rights are not trammelled by other private parties”. The judgment was about privacy broadly, and did not refer to specific cases like Aadhaar, but was seen as the basis from which future challenges to the scheme could be launched. The Modi government, however, appeared to carry on regardless. In October it linked Aadhaar to driving licence applications. By mid-December, the government had made Aadhaar mandatory if citizens wanted to access any of 140 government services.
Nandan Nilekani, who had stepped down as chair of Aadhaar in 2014 in order to become a candidate for the Congress party, railed against those who criticized the scheme. There was, he claimed, an “orchestrated campaign” to malign the system. “I think this so-called anti-Aadhaar lobby is really just a small bunch of liberal elites who are in some echo chamber,” he told an Indian business news channel. Anyway, Nilekani argued, it was too late for the naysayers to stop it. Too many people were now enrolled. It was too integral to the provision of services. Others saw attacks on Aadhaar as political, arguing that Congress was using it for political gain prior to the 2019 election, and that this would backfire. “Aadhaar today is not just a number,” the editor of India’s Economic Timeswrote. “The Congress envisaged it as a means of identity but the Modi government has taken it to a different level. It has become a weapon in the hands of the poor and a powerful tool to fight entrenched black money interests. It is now a symbol of anti-corruption, anti-black money drives, a symbol of efficient allocation of welfare benefits.”
Martin Moore is director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, and a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at King's College London. He was previously founding director of the Media Standards Trust (2006-2015) where he won a Knight News Challenge award and a Prospect Think Tank award. He writes extensively on the news media and public policy and lives on a farm in Oxfordshire.