The future of technology

USHA RAMANATHAN

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WE need another imagination around technology.

In the closing years of the last century, a problem presented itself to programmers which, if their panic proved justified, would have paralysed computer systems around the world. It was given the grand appellation of ‘Millennium Bug’ or, more modestly, the ‘Y2K bug’.

Computer programmers between the 1960s and 1980s had contracted the depiction of the year in the date on the computer to its last two digits: 1970 was 70, 1979 was 79. As the years approached 2000 AD, uncertainty erupted in the community of programmers that the missing numbers denoting the century may turn the clock back by nearly 100 years. Banks, for instance, had widely adopted computerization and interest rates were calculated on a daily basis. If the bug were to hit the systems, ‘instead of the interest rate for one day, the computer would calculate the rate of interest for minus almost 100 years!’1

The US, UK and Australia, which were among the countries where computerization had happened on scale, spent millions on treating the Y2K bug, and a fair share of this went towards making India’s technology companies, and their promoters, wealthy. In 1998, 40% of the nearly $ 2 billion revenue of Indian software companies ‘came from Y2K contracts.’2

As it came to pass, when the calendar crossed the dreaded date nothing dramatic occurred, and countries that had done little to nothing to prepare for the feared cataclysm had no more technological problems than those that had not. And, ‘due to the lack of results, many people dismissed the Y2K as a hoax or end-of-the-world cult.’3

Then it was the turn of the dot.com bubble; it burst some time in 2001. Dot.com companies, by definition, do most of their business on the internet. In the decade of the dot.com, they ‘vowed to "change the world", had crazy high valuations and were wildly unprofitable.’4 This is whence the language of ‘ubiquity’ and of ‘killer-apps’ found their everydayness. The over-ambition and underperformance of the dot.com companies saw it peak in the market in 2000 and bottom out in October 2002. That left the technological surge in the lurch.5

 

The industry was stumbling around, seeking a perch from which to perform when in March 2002, the European Union heads of state meeting in Lisbon discussed how they could put to use the power of information technology. At Lisbon, Heather Brooke writes, ‘there was widespread agreement that the struggling IT industry which had suffered the dot.com bust would be subsidized by states keen to expand their power. Each EU country was to develop its service delivery by electronic means or ‘e-government’; the stated aim – to offer citizens faster, more efficient services by also stimulating the IT market.’6

The next few years, e-governance seemed to have taken over the imagination of governments around the world. By 2010, the UN was rating countries on their ‘progress in e-government development.’7 It is important not to forget that e-governance was launched as a way to help the tech industries find business, and for governments to find ways to expand their power over the people.

In India, the National Knowledge Commission set up a special group with Nandan Nilekani as chair ‘to study e-governance.’8 ‘Mission-mode’ projects were mooted to re-engineer the government processes around the ‘e’ in e-governance. The UID was a Mission Mode project.

The UID saga is now widely known. That the project began with no feasibility study, no law and no privacy protection. That it moved swiftly from an identity, to an identification, project. That it inverted the meaning of voluntary, making voluntary mandatory. That its ambition was to make the number unique, ubiquitous and universal. That the Parliamentary Standing Committee rejected not just the 2010 Bill9 but also the project, and asked that both be taken back to the drawing board; and that the government decided to just carry on without a law.

That, many years later, when in 2016 the Aadhaar Act was passed into law in Parliament, it was introduced as a Money Bill, which the majority in the Supreme Court had to work through contortions to justify. That the use of the UID database by private companies was struck down by the Supreme Court, only to be brought back first by Ordinance – a use of extraordinary executive power. That the Data Protection Bill remains pending. And more, much more, speaking to the deeply problematic nature of this project.

There are so many questions that this project has raised which remain unanswered. Biometrics, and the rolling out of untested technology over an entire population is such a one.

 

Biometrics: this is the strange tale as presented in the project’s documents – paraphrasing could incur disbelief, if this indeed could truly be what the documents said – so here are some excerpts. In a ‘Notice inviting applications for hiring of biometrics consultant’ in January-February 2010:

‘For the western world, NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) for instance has invested tens of man-years of work to come up with recommendations for biometric capture process. … While NIST documents the fact that the accuracy of biometric matching is extremely dependent on demographics and environmental conditions, there is a lack of a sound study that documents the accuracy achievable on Indian demographics (i.e., larger percentage of rural population) and in Indian environmental conditions (i.e., extremely hot and humid climates and facilities without air-conditioning). In fact, we could not find any credible study assessing the achievable accuracy in any of the developing countries.’10

 

That was the state of knowledge (sic) in the months before enrolment began. A Proof of Concept (PoC) study of biometric enrolment was done between March and June 2010. In explaining the demographic it chose to test the technology, the UIDAI said:

‘The goal of the PoC was to collect data representative of India and not necessarily to find difficult-to-use biometrics. Therefore, extremely remote rural areas, often with populations specializing in certain types of work (tea plantation workers, areca nut growers, etc.) were not chosen. This ensured that degradation of biometrics characteristic of such narrow groups was not over represented in the sample data collected.’11

Problems encountered in the process of enrolment were mentioned in passing, for instance:

‘In conjunction with the age and occupation captured in the demographic screen, we were also able to analyse the average capture time and average number of capture attempts by age and by occupation. This was important since there are several occupations where repeated rubbing and scratching of fingers result in worn out fingerprints.’

 

The enrolment on the UIDAI database, and the harvesting of biometrics began on 29 September 2010. In November 2011, in an interview with Frontline, Ram Sewak Sharma, the Mission Director of UIDAI made an extraordinary admission:

‘Capturing fingerprints, especially of manual labourers, is a challenge. The quality of fingerprints is bad because of the rough exterior of fingers caused by hard work and this poses a challenge for later authentication. Issuing a unique identity with iris scans to help de-duplication will not be a major problem. But authentication will be because fingerprint is the basic mode of authentication.’12

It was March 2012 before a PoC of fingerprint authentication was made public. Its findings:

‘Every resident seems to have certain fingers that give better authentication results… Therefore, …tools and processes may be required to help residents identify these fingers.’

‘Multiple attempts of same finger further improve the chances of successful authentication.’

‘Mechanisms may be required for capturing more distinct fingers if a resident is not able to authenticate with a single finger.’

‘Effect of resident age on authentication accuracy: Residents in 15-60 years group showed the best authentication accuracy.’13

And more in this vein, which explains the ‘recommendation’: ‘Iris authentication helps provide an alternative biometric authentication mechanism for those residents who cannot be authenticated using fingerprints. Further studies need to be undertaken in this regard.’

So, it was known that finger-prints were unreliable; and iris still needed to be studied. Yet, it was rolled out, and the distribution of rations, midday meals, social security pension and payments through banking correspondents built fingerprint authentication into the system.

 

The Iris Authentication Accuracy PoC was dated 14 September 2012, a mere three months and some before UID was made mandatory for a torrent of purposes, from the distribution of rations in PDS to cooking gas to everything done through the Revenue Department in Delhi, for instance, including the registration of marriage. The report started with an extraordinary claim:

‘Iris as a biometric modality’, it read, ‘promises certain unique characteristics in Indian environment. Iris technology literature lists several benefits.’ It then goes on to list them, beginning with this strange declaration: ‘The iris does not get worn out with age, or with use. In addition, iris authentication is not impacted by changes in the weather.’ This didn’t stand to reason – that there was any part of the human body that did not age. And, contemporaneously, a research study published adverted to the ‘assumption’ that the ‘appearance of the iris is stable throughout a person’s lifetime’ having been ‘accepted by the research community since the beginning of iris biometric research.’ Basically, it hadn’t been investigated. The study14 did find, though, that ‘template aging’ (which is what they were studying) certainly occurred. This, they suggested, could be remedied by re-enrolling the iris biometric at set intervals.

 

In August 2015, the UIDAI added a segment to its project description: UBCC and Research, UBCC the acronym for UIDAI Biometric Centre of Competence. ‘Nature and diversity of India’s working population adds another challenge to achieving uniqueness through biometric features’, the document read. ‘Like other technology fields such as telecommunications, we do not have experience like developed countries to leverage for designing UIDAI’s biometric systems.’

The ‘Mission’ was, therefore, ‘to design biometrics system that enabled India to achieve uniqueness in the national registry. The endeavour of designing such a system is an ongoing quest to innovate biometrics technology appropriate for the Indian conditions.’ Six years after the project was launched, five years after enrolment had begun, close to three years after biometric authentication had been made mandatory for a range of services on which the citizenry relied, the UIDAI was saying that they were still reeling around in the realm of the unknown in biometrics.

In 2016, Ram Sewak Sharma, wrote a blog about the adoption of iris when the Biometric Standards Committee, in December 2009, said that fingerprints would fall short for enrolment. (At that point, they were not yet worrying themselves with authentication.) He wrote with charming candour that ‘The (Biometrics Standards) Committee was not ready to recommend inclusion of iris.’ And proceeded to make this admission:

‘Yes, it is a fact that when the project was started, UIDAI had no data to prove that biometrics will be able to bring about desired accuracy or to disprove other contentions relating to large percentage of failure to enrol, inaccuracies in authentication etc… Obviously, there was no data relating to authentication… One was not sure whether any system will be able to function and produce results when the data size became very large… The question was: should UIDAI go ahead and do the project on the basis of ‘untested’ technology at this scale? …it is similar to a Moon shot.15 Nobody has done it before and yet you do it because nobody will ever do it before you. …it should be realized that de-duplication algorithms have never been tested and scaled up to such numbers which will eventually happen in this case.’16

 

Some years later, when fingerprints began to fail in the PDS which is where it was deployed, ‘aadhaar deaths’ had happened, been reported to the court and elided over, a ‘Compendium’ was issued by the UIDAI relating to biometrics. A few illustrative excerpts:

‘It is expected that a small percentage of aadhaar holders (forgive them their euphemisms) will not be able to do biometric authentication …if fingerprint is not working at all even after multi-finger authentication, then alternate (sic) such as iris or OTP must be provided… If the schemes is family based (like PDS system), anyone in the family must be able to authenticate to avail the benefit. This ensures that even if one person is unable to do any fingerprint authentication, someone else in the family is able to authenticate. If none of the above is working (multi-finger, iris, anyone in the family etc.) the agency must allow alternate (sic) exception handling schemes using card or PIN or other means …In case biometric authentication through fingerprints or iris scan or face authentication is not successful, wherever feasible and admissible authentication by aadhaar OTP or time-based OTP with limited time validity …shall be offered.’17

 

And so on, and on, and on. This explains why, by 2019 when talk of One Nation One Ration began to be heard, it was being said:

‘Under the system, consumers are required to undergo biometric (fingerprint etc.) authentication’, but ‘reports/feedback’ say that ‘failure of authentication in case of old-aged persons/hard-working labourers was causing difficulties in collecting rations in PDS shops.’ The incredible alternative prescribed was ‘providing ration card nominee facility.’ That is, I nominate you to lend me your biometrics because my fingerprints fail me. There, finally, was the admission that the UID is no identity at all.

 

It is more than just biometrics that was an experiment that failed to deliver. Nilekani spoke of himself self-effacingly as a plumber, in a project that was to plug leakages.18 Corruption and inefficiency would wilt and wither with the UID becoming the gateway to services including PDS, NREGA, pensions, salaries and scholarships. This was not to be, but it was the press that spotted it, which then did its own investigation. The UIDAI stayed silent.

Starting 31 October 2020 and going through November and into December, the Indian Express reported on an investigation their reporters had undertaken which revealed gaping holes in a scheme to provide minority scholarships.19 The first reports spoke of extensive fraud in the state of Jharkhand. The headline was terse: ‘Aadhaar obtained, account hijacked, and hostel faked.’20 The report spoke of ‘how the scam had ensnared schools, students and parents across four districts in Jharkhand despite multiple checks in place, including aadhaar IDs, fingerprints, bank accounts, and an online database.’

The report is replete with the ease-of-misuse of the UID: ‘I gave the middleman my aadhaar number account details. My wife and I received Rs 10,700 each, and we gave half the amount to the middleman.’ ‘I had given my fingerprints and aadhaar details but I didn’t know an account had been created in my name.’ ‘Several students across at least six districts in Jharkhand have had their aadhaar cards and fingerprints taken, and scholarships disbursed in their names, but many have received only a fraction of the amount – if at all anything.’ The investigation traced the scam to Assam and Bihar; there’s no saying yet how far, or how deep this would go, or for how long it has been on.

 

Even as this remained front page news for days, a discussion on the UID project on 9 November 2020 with four retired bureaucrats, including Ram Sewak Sharma, whose recent book21 was being discussed, seemed unaware that there was any problem with the project. It was like the reports in the Indian Express never happened. The project has chugged on unimpeded by evidence and experience, creating exclusion, scams and devious devices as in the passage of the Aadhaar Act as a Money Bill.

In 2017, the next stage in harnessing personal information for pro-fit was introduced to us as ‘trickle up’.22 The West, this theory went, was already wealthy before becoming data rich. That is not true for India where poverty is pervasive. But, and this was a significant ‘but’, Indians are data rich. All they needed to do was work at letting the data trickle up, to reach those who would convert it into wealth. In 2018, the Srikrishna Committee, which was to have been working on privacy,23 displayed admirable honesty in calling its report ‘A Free and Fair Digital Economy’ and added in a subheading, in acknowledgement of why the committee had been set up, ‘Protecting privacy, empowering Indians.’

 

Rights, ‘of which the right to privacy is an example’, the committee wrote, are ‘tools… necessary for the realization of certain common goods. The importance of a right… is not because of the benefit that accrues to the rights holder but rather because that benefit is a public good that society as a whole enjoys. This is a critical distinction’, the committee continued, ‘and often missed in the simplistic individual-centric accounts of rights.’24 This impatient dismissal of the rights that are fundamental to every person opened up a flood of possibilities for converting our personal information into many products.

The Economic Survey 2018-19 rode on this tidal wave of tech utopia and advocated for data being ‘treated as public good’.25 ‘As people increasingly use digital services to talk to each other, look up information, purchase goods and services and engage with local leaders, data is being generated at an unprecedented scale… As people shift their day-to-day activities online, they leave digital footprints… Put differently, people produce data about themselves and store this data on public and private servers every-day of their own accord.’ Data which would have been ‘laborious… to gather a few decades ago is today accumulating online at near-zero cost, although it is scattered across sources.’ The push was for a ‘government-driven data revolution.’ Of course, whittling down rights is for the ‘welfare of citizens’!

 

A while later, a committee, headed this time by another founder of a technology major (Infosys), Kris Gopalakrishnan, was constituted to draw up a ‘Non-Personal Data Framework’. The ‘key takeaways’ in the report are clear and succinct:

‘The world is awash with data. …Data inter alia contributes to economic value and wealth… Organizations have been discovering ways to generate value from data. The digital economy is witnessing the emergence of a few dominant players and a certain imbalance in the market. Given the increasing importance and value generation capacity of the data economy, governments around the world realize the need to enable and regulate all aspects of data, both Personal and Non-Personal Data.’ Government is to ‘enable’ the conversion of data into economic value. Personal data becomes non-personal data by being anonymized.

About ‘Public Non-Personal Data’, which is data collected by governments, ‘the committee believes that since it ‘is derived from public efforts, the datasets created partake of the characteristics of a national resource.’26

Amidst hunger, unemployment, lack of education, poverty, impoverishment, induced vulnerability, and the certainty of uncertainty, this is how the person, the community and the public – the three classes into which the Non-Personal Data Framework Committee is corralling us – are being given an entirely new meaning: as data.

 

If this dream of the data merchants were to morph into the nightmare that it will become, the kind of altered reality reflected in places like the Institute of Human Obsolescence (IoHO) may well become our life and labour. You read that right. Human obsolescence. Founded by Manuel Beltran, it is described as ‘an artistic research project investigating the repositioning of human labour in a time where manual and intellectual labour is increasingly being performed by machines and new forms of inequality arise.’27 The IoHO tells a chilling tale: ‘Machines are ousting us. As it happened some time ago to horses after the invention of the steam engine, humans are becoming obsolete mechanical labour. Soon, with the advance of artificial intelligence, it will also affect our possibilities to be useful workers performing intellectual labour.’

Sounds a long way off? Or too highly improbable that we can cast it into the cosmos of science fiction and dust ourselves off and walk away? May be this deserves more serious thought. Just may be? Remember Stephen Hawking’s warning: ‘The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.’28

The lure of data is overwhelming: the profit, the control, the role for the technology provider, and the global reach into all persons – think digital certificate for vaccination – and all systems and sovereignties. Rights are obstacles. All else is petty beside the promise that a world governed by data holds out. We are walking into this blindfolded. That doesn’t seem a good idea.

 

There’s more. Vint Cerf, known as one of the fathers of the internet, is speaking of a ‘digital dark age’. He is worried about another form of obsolescence: the dating and disappearance of hardware and software as each generation of technology renders obsolete the previous, and as each generation of humans leaves behind the history recorded in the previous.29 Our technologists tell us with hardly repressed glee about going ‘paperless’ and ‘presenceless’. In a day not far, the retired machines and code may leave us with no memory to pass on into history.

Cerf finds his answers in preserving every piece of software and hardware in digital form, on a cloud, so it never disappears. A technology solution to be provided by a technology monopoly for a problem created by technology.30

We may want to do our own thinking.

 

* Acknowledgment: John Simte for verifying and inserting the sources.

** All sites visited on 12 November 2020.

Footnotes:

1. ‘Y2K Bug: The Y2K Bug Was a Computer Flaw, or Bug, That May Have Caused Problems When Dealing With Dates Beyond December 31, 1999’, National Geographic, available at https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/Y2K-bug/ (21 January 2011).

2. ‘India Leading Y2K Charge’, CNN Money, available at https://money.cnn.com/1999/03/17/technology/y2k_pkg/ (17 March 1999).

3. Supra note 1.

4. Brian McCullough, A Revealing Look at the Dot-Com Bubble of 2000 – and how it shapes our lives today, TED, available at https://ideas.ted.com/an-eye-opening-look-at-the-dot-com-bubble-of-2000-and-how-it-shapes-our-lives-today/ (4 December 2018).

5. Id.

6. Heather Brooke, The Silent State: Secrets, Surveillance and the Myth of British Democracy, 2010, p. 27.

7. United Nations E-Government Survey, 2010: Leveraging e-Government at a Time of Financial and Economic Crisis. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, available at https://publicadministration.un.org/egovkb/portals/egovkb/documents/un/2010-survey/complete-survey.pdf (2010).

8. Report to the Nation 2007, National Knowledge Commission, Government of India, available at https://epsiindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Knowledge-Commission-Report-20071.pdf (2007).

9. The National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010, Standing Committee on Finance (2011-12), 42nd Report, Fifteenth Lok Sabha, Ministry of Planning, Lok Sabha Secretariat (December 2011) available at https://uidai.gov.in/images/report_of_the_departmental_standing_committee_on_finance_on_the_bill_13012017.pdf

10. Notice Inviting Applications for Hiring of Biometrics Consultant, Unique Identification Authority of India, Planning Commission, Government of India, available at https://docplayer.net/18863674-Notice-inviting-applications-for-hiring-of-biometrics-consultant-a-11016-07-10-uidai.html (2010).

11. Ibid.

12. G. Srinivasan, ‘The Aim is Inclusion’, interview with Ram Sewak Sharma, DG and Mission Director, UIDAI, Frontline, 2 December 2011.

13. Role of Biometric Technology in Aadhaar Authentication, Iris Authentication Accuracy-PoC Report, Unique Identification Authority of India, Planning Commission, Government of India, available at https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/3558488/iris-authentication-accuracy-aeur-poc-report-uidai (14 September 2012).

14. Samuel P. Fenker and Kevin Bowyer, ‘Experimental Evidence of Template Aging in Iris Biometrics’, 2011, at https://www3.nd.edu/~kwb/Fenker_Bowyer_WACV_2011.pdf

15. See, Natalie Grover, ‘Operation Moonshot "Llike Building Channel Tunnel Without Civil Engineers",’ The Guardian, 16 November 2020 at https://www.theguardian. com/world/2020/nov/16/operation-moonshot-like-building-channel-tunnel-without-civil-engineers-covid-testing. For what had to precede the actually moon landing, though, see Charles Fishman (2019), ‘One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon’ or Andrew Chaikin (1994), ‘A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts’.

16. Ram Sewak Sharma, ‘UIDAI’s Public Policy Innovations’, 6 September 2016, at https://www.nipfp.org.in/media/medialibrary/2016/09/WP_2016_176.pdf

17. Compendium of Regulations, Circulars & Guidelines, Unique Identification Authority of India, Government of India, pg. 67 available at https://uidai.gov.in/images/resource/Compendium_30042019.pdf (2019).

18. R. Sukumar, Nandan Nilekani, Chairman UIDAI’, Live Mint available at https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/zKPVegCX1kxYbnb23aehdJ/Nandan-Nilekani-chairman-UIDAI.html (28 December 2012).

19. A. Angad, ‘Direct Benefit Transfer is Direct Siphoning of School Scholarship’, The Indian Express, available at https://indianexpress.com/page/2/?s=scholarship+scam (1 November2020).

20. A. Angad, ‘Jharkhand Scholarship Scam: Aadhaar Obtained, Account Hijacked, and Hostel Faked’, The Indian Express, available at https://indianexpress.com/article/express-exclusive/scholarship-scam-jharkhand-aadhaar-hostel-students-6913027/ (2 November 2020).

21. Ram Sewak Sharma, The Making of Aadhaar: World’s Largest Identity Platform. Rupa Publications, Delhi, 2020.

22. ‘Startup Awards: India to be Digitally-Rich Before Being Economically Wealthy’, Economic Times, 21 August 2017, at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/small-biz/startups/et-startup-awards-india-to-be-digitally-rich-before-being-economically-wealthy/articleshow/60151874.cms.

23. K.S. Puttuswamy & Anr. v. Union of India, (2017) 10 SCC 1.

24. Page 9 of the Report (2018) available at https://www.meity.gov.in/writereaddata/files/Data_Protection_Committee_Report.pdf

25. Chapter 04: Data ‘Of the People, By the People, For the People’, Economic Survey of India, 2018-19, available at https://www.indiabudget.gov.in/budget2019-20/econo-micsurvey/doc/vol1chapter/echap04_vol1.pdf (July 2019).

26. Report by the Committee of Experts on Non-Personal Data Governance Framework, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Government of India, pg. 27 available at https://static.mygov.in/rest/s3fs-public/mygov_159453381955063671.pdf (2020).

27. Barbara Dubbledam, ‘Data Production Labour – an Investigative Discussion with the Institute of Human Obsolescence’, Institute of Network Cultures, available at network-cultures.org/blog/2018/11/15/data-production (15 November 2018).

28. Rory Cellan-Jones, ‘Stephen Hawking Warns Artificial Intelligence Could End Mankind’, British Broadcasting Corporation, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30290540 (2 December 2014).

29. P. Ghosh, ‘Google’s Vint Cerf Warns of "Digital Age",’ British Broadcasting Corporation, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-31450389 (13 February 2015).

30. Vint Cerf is Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. ‘Official biography: Vint Cerf’ at https://internethalloffame.org/vint-cerf (visited on 13 January, 2020.

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