Selling Aadhaar: What the UIDAI's Advertisements Don't Tell You

The idea of one’s own identity is sold through perfectly curated advertisements where inclusion, identity and access are conditionally granted through the Aadhaar and not by default.

For the last four years, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the bureaucratic machine that governs India’s biometric authentication programme, has been extremely defensive. The authority’s CEO regularly uses one of the country’s most-respected newspapers as a platform to unilaterally dismiss the security and privacy concerns emanating from the Aadhaar project as “Luddite paranoia”. He has also dismissed concerns raised over reports of large-scale exclusion, especially in welfare schemes, as anecdotal evidence and a narrative pushed forth by corrupt people looking to “demonise Aadhaar”.

Where carefully-crafted op-eds don’t work, police cases do. The UIDAI has filed three FIRs against critics who have documented security flaws and data breaches within the larger Aadhaar ecosystem, two of them being journalists. The original tech architect behind the initiative staunchly believes that most Aadhaar critics are part of an “orchestrated campaign” to malign the biometric authentication programme.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that the advertisements the UIDAI has commissioned over the last few years come from a moralistic high-ground, where nothing is wrong in Aadhaar-land and everything works as it’s supposed to. As we show below, these advertisements masquerade under the guise of serving a public good while conveniently sidestepping legitimate concerns regarding failures of the project.

An advertisement titled ‘Aadhaar – the most trusted ID in India’ was uploaded to the UIDAI’s official YouTube channel in May 2018. The advertisement features three subjects, of which two are upper-class women of the same household, and the other a domestic help which they are looking to hire. One of the women in the ad questions the domestic help on matters such as her identity, her past employment, whether she possesses a voter ID card, PAN card or any other forms of identification, to which the help responds by saying “How would I have one of those?”.

The advertisement goes as far as to portray Aadhaar as being ‘the most trusted ID’ in the country due to the ease and perception of security presented by the prospect of being able to verify the validity of a card online, something which, according to the advert, no other ID available in India offers.

While this claim in itself is not entirely true – as PAN card and voter ID details too can be verified online – this message of a trusted, spotless ecosystem is portrayed despite the widely known instances of false entries in the database, as well as reports of rampant misuse due to cracked enrollment software and abuse by fraudulent operators.

In September of 2014, The Hindu published an article about an Aadhaar card being issued in the name of the Hindu god Hanuman. The card and its relating information had undergone the enrollment process, and had even been dispatched to the listed address. However, before the card was delivered to the address provided during enrolment, the postal worker responsible for its delivery caught on and alerted senior officials, who had the card sent back to Bangalore on the basis of that there was no recipient available to whom the card could be delivered.

While the fact that someone attempted to enroll the Hindu god may seem innocuous at first, several other individuals who might not be as innocuous were issued real and valid Aadhaar cards – including an Uzbek national by the name of Zeboo Asalina, who was involved in the illegal sex trade in Bhubaneshwar. She was found possessing an Aadhaar card bearing her picture, a New Delhi address and the name ‘Duniya Khan’. To this date, the Aadhaar number for Asalina’s card is still valid, according to the UIDAI website and is registered under the same phone number which was seized by the police. These are not one-off instances either, as a man who was suspected to be a Pakistani high commission official planted in India to spy and commit acts of espionage was found possessing a valid Aadhaar card bearing his picture under the name ‘Mehboob Rajput’. The individual’s identity was later confirmed as Mehmood Akhtar, a Pakistani national and an officer of the ISI.

In all three of the above mentioned instances, the recovered Aadhaar cards were not cases of forged identity documents, but rather cases of real entries in the database itself, with the cards being issued by the UIDAI.

Ration deception

In another instance, an advertisement for Aadhaar which was uploaded on the UIDAI’s official YouTube channel in June 2018 depicts an elderly woman attempting to avail her rations, but her biometric identifiers are not recognised by the machine. This is followed by the ration shop owner telling her that there is nothing that could be done in the case, essentially denying the woman her rations. An onlooker chimes in to let the elderly woman know that rations cannot be denied for want of Aadhaar or inability to properly authenticate it using one’s biometrics.

This advertisement completely ignores the reality that Aadhaar has, in fact, cost many their rations due to mandatory linking as well as a spate of glitches, errors and faults in the system. It even ignores the grain-pilfering scam which took place in Gujarat and was in-part enabled by Aadhaar and the availability of fingerprints of beneficiaries. Additionally, it also ignores the tragic starvation deaths of at-least five people in Jharkhand, which were caused due to the mandatory integration of the Public Distribution System (PDS) with Aadhaar.

These ads intentionally omit any aspect which could be deemed negative or unsavoury, and in doing so utilise a deceptive tactic seen usually in cases of false or misleading advertisements. Additionally, since these advertisements are not restrained by regulations applicable to advertisements for products such as life insurance or mutual funds, we do not hear a ‘speed-talker’ listing disclaimers which any reasonable consumer, or in this case, user, would consider relevant.

Aadhaar is shown as a unidimensionally beneficial identity document. A necessity to living life in India, a hurdle that need only be crossed once to avail benefits for a lifetime. However, this prospect is presented to the public only through tantalisingly veiled indications. Never asserted, merely suggested.

Take, for instance, an advertisement from June  2017, which portrays a series of incidents which are seemingly commonplace. A line at the bank shows a clerk confidently proclaiming that a bank account has been opened for the client she is addressing, and this step is depicted to the viewer as being completed only once a scan of the biometrics is taken.

Similarly, another instance in the same advertisement depicts the principal of a school congratulating the mother of a young girl on her child receiving a scholarship. What is this doing in an Aadhaar advertisement, you might ask?

The question that begs to be asked in both these instances involves considering a paradigm where having an Aadhaar does not automatically permeate and saturate the fictional ad universe as a pre-made success story. What happens when the young girl is unable to receive her scholarship due to the lack of an Aadhaar? What consequences would this hold for economically underprivileged individuals who are dependant on that very scholarship for their education?

In the cushy universe of the ever-happy bank clerks and ration shop owners, questions such as these remain unanswered. In addition to this, an article written by Sukriti Dwivedi of NDTV points to the difficulties which were encountered by over 25,000 people in the National Capital Region when attempting to obtain their guaranteed rations – caused simply due to the mandate of requiring an Aadhaar card – whether due to mismatch of fingerprints, internet connectivity issues in Aadhaar biometric machines or dubious ration shop owners pilfering subsidised grains. In Uttarakhand, more than 53,000 people were denied their pension for lack of Aadhaar.

If the advertisements espoused by the UIDAI were to be believed, the prospect of biometric failures and internet connectivity issues do not even figure in to the day-to-day business of the coercive practice of making Aadhaar an unsubstitutable instrument of citizen life in India.

Another important aspect to note is the use of children as mouthpieces, or promoters of Aadhaar. In an advertisement released in October of 2016, we see a school child, no older than six years, run up to his mother and ask about his Aadhaar card. He states that his teacher had said it was important for him to have an Aadhaar, as well as his younger sister, who is an infant. The visibly alarmed mother listens on and the next scene cuts to an Aadhaar registration centre, ending with the mother confidently asserting, “Mera Aadhaar, Meri Pehchaan”, the Aadhaar slogan. The figure of the child is utilised here dubiously – as a force for conveying the critical importance of having an Aadhaar card, valid because of their vulnerability.

In the advertisement from July 2017, the concern of the two visibly upper class women is shown to stem fundamentally not from their class-ridden tendency of assuming an inherent lack of security and safety that the idea of a lower class domestic help represents to them, but  instead a displacement to the very idea of vitality, security and the critical nature of taking care of an innocent and helpless child.

The act of verifying identity melds with the critical importance of the life of the child being in safe hands, ridding the subject matter of the advertisement into a broader version of a seamless, transparent, digitally connected India, where problematic classist tendencies are first justified, subsequently left unaddressed and ultimately forgotten as identity is now available at one’s fingertips.

Speaking of children, until a few months ago, schools in the National Capital Region were demanding Aadhaar numbers of children seeking new admissions – that was until the Delhi High Court revoked the ‘No Aadhaar, No Admission’ rule in late July. This was a matter of relief for parents who did not possess the identity document for their kin. In several other states, however, both private as well as state-run schools are still demanding students’ Aadhaar numbers as one of the grounds for admission.

If one is in a situation where they have either lost or misplaced their mobile phone while their Aadhaar biometrics were set to ‘locked’, they essentially face a deadlock scenario where they lose the ability to reclaim their phone number (as telecom operators demand to authenticate customers through their Aadhaar and biometric identifiers, which, since they are locked, would not allow successful authentication), thus also meaning that they lose out on the ability to re-enable biometric authentication for their Aadhaar, as that requires receiving a one-time-pin to the linked phone number. A situation such as this could be described as the ‘civil death’ of an individual, wherein services that mandate Aadhaar authentication are rendered inacessible.

American whistleblower and former CIA employee Edward Snowden used the term when discussing Aadhaar remotely during a recent event held in Jaipur. Senior advocate Shyam Divan had also argued that project could cause the civil death of an individual during the Supreme Court case regarding the project as all power rested with the state, describing it as “tethering every resident of India to an electronic leash”.

Teleological certainty

The idea of Aadhaar being convenient stems fundamentally from the systematic exclusion of all other forms of identity and access. However, by making Aadhaar mandatory – and with it rendering the use of all other forms of identity a doubly time-consuming, torturous affair – the metaphorical equivalent to this could only be forcefully destroying all routes surrounding a destination, barring one, and subsequently declaring that it is the best of all possible routes.

Perhaps the most sinister of all propositions is that the advertisements espoused by the UIDAI all contain within themselves a curious trait. A cursory glance reveals a noticeable similarity between these advertisements and those made for popular consumer products such as Colgate. Much like an ad for Colgate, these advertisements situate themselves within the space of the homely and domestic; featuring subjects which arguably fall into a pan-India demographic. This includes rural India, invoked in the advertisement of the six year old child and his mother, urban class dynamics conveyed in the advertisement about the two upper-class women and their domestic help and the advertisement featuring the bank clerk and the school girl with the scholarship.

The question arises, do these advertisements fulfill the purpose of serving a public good, or are they merely attempts at public-service-propaganda being paid for by taxpayer money? (Rs 30 crore was spent for an ‘image makeover’ of Aadhaar in the fiscal year 2014)

The marginal figure of the old lady at the ration shop, the concern of children, infants and Aadhaar, all conveniently and enticingly teeter on the edge of definite and conclusive allocation to a single, overriding demographic placeholder. In invoking Aadhaar as an almost apolitical entity spanning so many different demographics and ‘situations’ seemingly faced by almost everyone, the advertisements ultimately convey to the public an image of a wide and voluntary acceptance of a ‘product’ that could (and has), in cases, led to non-payment of MGNREGS wages in Telangana, non-receipt of government subsidies in Gujarat as well as starvation deaths in Jharkhand and curtailment of the constitutionally guaranteed Right to Education in areas such as the National Capital.

Biometric verification of Aadhaar has experienced various troubles. Credit: Reuters

While Aadhaar has always been insisted upon as a proof of identity and not of citizenship, in conveying the image of a pan-Indian accessibility and progress that magically open up upon the procurement of an Aadhaar, the document itself becomes a necessary institution to the acts that constitute citizen life.

The idea of one’s own identity is sold to them through perfectly curated advertisements where inclusion, identity and access become tangible realities that are conditionally granted to one through the Aadhaar and not by default. Aadhaar and its various tools of propaganda attempt to create a cultural foreground that does not forge the entity of a individual as somehow separate from his or her 12 digit unique identification number.

The portrayal of seamlessness regarding the steps surrounding Aadhaar seek to diminish its mandatory status in everyday life – just as much as it dissolves the demographic specificities of its perilous lapses in a solution that is as opaque as much as it is anthemic.

Aadhaar, through these advertisements, becomes a force of cultural and social acceptance and not as much a socio-economic fundamental that could, for all practical purposes, and never in an advertisement, render one stateless.

Anandita Thakur is a student of literature and culture studies. Her research interests include East Asian cinema, culture theory and the identity politics introduced by new technologies.

Karan Saini is a security analyst and consultant from New Delhi. He writes on issues relating to web security, privacy and open source intelligence.