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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Aadhar and the Panopticon

Satyaki Roy

The state should know its citizens, power should know its subjects and the nation should secure and ensure the rule of the sovereign.  An illegal immigrant, not a bonafide citizen who crosses border to the heaven for two square meals or a duplicate citizen unscrupulous and immoral who stands in the queue for a second help using fake identities seem to be  the greatest threat to our fiscal and national security. So we need unique identification number which identifies and codifies every Indian citizen by a twelve-digit number loaded with unique finger prints and iris scan. There is nowhere to run away or hide! The government found this so important that it passed the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016 as money bill that requires a majority in the lower house only and hence given the current situation could avoid the potential debates and schism in the upper house. Many commentators see this as an architecture of mass surveillance and a compromise to the right to privacy. 


It is the realization of Nandan Nilkarni's dream of making UID 'ubiquitous' a compulsory authentication that can be called upon whenever desired by the government. So starting from attendance in your workplace recorded by biometric authentication linked to Aadhar, booking train or flight tickets, online retail purchase, buying a SIM card,  bank transactions, board exams, marriages to n-number of such socio-economic and cultural transactions would be recorded in the data vault of the national informatics system. And the government can easily access those data which records your movements, transactions, engagements whenever they seem to be needed for the great  cause of national security. The situation is something like this. I quote Sunil Abraham[i],  executive director of a Bengaluru based research organisation 'Maintaining a central database is akin to getting the keys of every house in Delhi and storing them at a central police station. The chances of getting a central database compromised depend on the nature of information stored in it. For the sake of security one can't create a honey pot to be attacked by many.'

Therefore you are under surveillance,  your transactions are detectable, your iris scan allows you to get detected by the police using sophisticated camera. So if you are in a mob of protest you can be identified amidst thousands! only thing required to proceed with this infringement of privacy is that the authority should at least find something wrong in you which could be a cause of concern for 'national security'. It has also been argued by many grassroot social activists, researchers including eminent scholar Jean Dreze[ii] that compulsory authentication of Aadhar would exclude many bonafide claimants from the welfare benefits simply because such technologies do not work in rural areas because of weak connectivity. The other problem is those who do regular manual work their finger prints very often do not match with the recorded data and there are ample evidences that show people are unnecessarily harassed and excluded because of this malfunctioning of related tools. Experts also say that a transparent and visible auditing of transactions could have served better to plug the leakages in public distribution and other welfare schemes rather than linking individuals to compulsory authentication. And who doesn't know in this country why and how real leakages happen? There are loads of evidence including recent gala theft by  Maliya and also what the Panama papers suggest. Big ticket leakages in this country actually do not take place in the PDS shops distributing wheat and other grains to the poor but it is siphoning of wealth amassed out of public money done by the elite. It happens and continues to happen not because of any problem of identification rather they are celebrities! Therefore the purpose of compulsory authentication is not meant to handle leakage as it appears to be in the bill; neither there is adequate evidence that such technological solutions would be effective in a country where large parts do not have adequate network reach. It is a much deeper project that matches with a particular template of the architecture of power in capitalism.

Jeremy Bentham proposed an infamous project, panopticon, a design of discipline and control which Foucault picked up as a genealogical marker. Foucault describes it "At the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other. All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy. By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery. They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible (Foucault, 1977)[iii]. This is the architecture of power in the modern world which Foucault describes as the socio-material template for institutional power. The peculiarity of this template is that power should be visible and unverifiable at the same time. You are always visible by the authority but not necessarily power at the tall tower is monitoring you all the time; you are under the radar but you cannot verify whether you are watched upon or not. Panopticon is a template that dissociates 'seeing' and 'being seen'. This creates a sense of helplessness and horror to the individual  vis-a-vis institutional power. Aadhar, a twelve digit number makes one accessible by the state, makes the state omnipresent. So the individual is conditioned because one would  always have this scary feeling that I can always be watched by someone far more powerful. This is a particular type of intervention on the part of the state, an intervention that allows the individual to be examined by power at every moment whenever required.

But what is exactly meant by managing and governing. It is not policing in its limited sense of the term but a complex triad of objectification, scientification and subjectification. In order to manage, power has to understand the population and control the body. Just like in order to understand the physiology of a frog the frog has to be transformed into a dissected body and then it is labelled, categorized, the parts of the body gets objectified, it shows a pattern, a resemblance as also differences with the existing body of knowledge. So the frog has to be objectified, transformed, analysed by means of scientific categories and then only one understands the physiology of a frog and hence make it amenable to intervene. Similarly power first of all has to individuate the individual. The citizen becomes a number which is far more stable than a photograph. And the number is tractable along with the movement of the individual, just like a packet of sugar is identified and monitored in a super market by the bar codes attached to it. Thus the government handles a huge data base that allows to categorise, analyse and identify patterns culled out from individual data. And by that process ascertains a process of normalisation that defines the 'norm' and allows to identify the 'abnormal'. By this process new subjectivities are also created. People are identified in groups, various categories, labelled according to certain patterns. And such patterns allow the government to understand the populace and control them. The intervention on the part of the government in that way might be more productive being far more specific and scientific and at the same time it gives rise to new subjectivities that are more amenable to control.

Aadhar serves the purpose of both controlling the population and the body. Power needs to understand its subjects and create 'docile body that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved'. It is about understanding the population, categorize and control and the control works in a subtle manner. Power works in its extremities, in its capillary form, the state appears to be invisible in this articulation of power. Rather new subjects created through categories and identities emerge as new language of control. It relies on a mechanism an apparatus of digital surveillance that allows the state to exert indirect control over the individual. The 'discipline'  is internalized in this case. The person who is constricted by such surveillance who is reduced to a number or a code and can only engage with the state by means of some password or the code being read through, the helplessness of exclusion in those situations is completely individualized. So if your fingerprints are not identified by a biometric apparatus  it would appear to be legitimate of being deprived from the welfare schemes that are subject to compulsory identification. The state is faceless and the citizen every time has to pass through this test of legitimacy. Aadhar familiarizes the test, the test gets normalized. The discipline and control in such situations therefore are exerted by an environment where those who are controlled in the process themselves become the carriers of power.

Aadhar conforms to the architecture of power.



[i] Aadhaar is Actually Surveillance Tech, Business Standard, March 12, 2016

[ii] The Aadhar Coup, The Hindu, May 15, 2016.
[iii] Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York, Pantheon.

Satyaki Roy is with the Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, New Delhi.

1 comment:

  1. Is this inevitable or can something be done to stop it - minimise the Adharshila connectivity - exclude finger printing and iris scan, connect only some things?

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