Kaarana

Technology

A strange year in Aadhaar – Kaarana – Medium

Anand Venkatanarayanan

This is a very personal account of how I became an Aadhaar critic.

It was September 2016 and I was staring at my grand father’s notes on the effects of Saturn, which represents the idea of limits in all human endeavours and provides brutal reminders of this concept during 3 blocks of 7.5 years of suffering during a human life.

Why was I staring at my grandfather’s notes? I was told by my mother that my time of suffering will begin by April 2017 and though I did not believe in it, there is always the possibility that it could be right. One of the apparent ways to avoid the suffering is to learn a new thing.

Learning a new thing would be useful, I thought, but which one?

Then I came across this exceptionally well written one by Haresh Chawla. That was the first time I heard about India Stack.

How India's digital economy can rediscover its mojo

"Pillars of Creation", a photograph of interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula, taken by the Hubble Space…

www.foundingfuel.com

I had of course heard of Aadhaar but never paid attention to it what so ever, but as it was the basis of the India Stack, tried to learn about it. There was some buzz in twitter about it and in trying to understand what it was about came to twitter for the first time.

UIDAI was pretty helpful those days. All their documents were available in their web site and I was able to read most of it during a two month long period. It was evident from a pure architecture point of view that a single ubiquitous ID is not a good system design, but as the notifications to link more kept on coming, my unease was increasing.

Mid day meal notification

While there was growing unease about the project, I did think that it was mostly useful and had implementation issues which would be eventually ironed out. That was shattered by the mid day meal linking announcement.

Aadhaar linked to mid-day meal: Why put the burden on children?

The last few weeks have seen a spate of government notifications making Aadhaar mandatory for receiving the benefits of…

www.hindustantimes.com

I know how mid day meal scheme worked personally in TN as my mother worked for a while in Civil supplies department. Food occupied a very important part of our lives as she was a working bureaucrat and I had to learn to cook from 10 years onwards to reduce her burden since like most men of his times my father would not help her.

The linking made me dig deeper into the project than ever before.

And I even made very feeble attempts to contact India Stack. Surely they can’t be blind to this madness.

The interview on Business line was the turning point. I simply started replying to the thread started by Alok (Another interesting character BTW, if you happen to meet him) and Nikhil noticed it and asked me if I could write a rebuttal via twitter DM.

I have never done public writing before in my life and did not even know what a rebuttal is. Nikhil suggested a simple process. Quote a sentence and write your opinion about it and keep going until you think it is done. The writing did not take much time and the first one was published on April 5, 2017 (My seven and half started exactly on April 1, 2017)

A response to Nandan Nilekani on Aadhaar (Updated)

by Anand Venkatanarayanan This article was written as a rebuttal on the article that appeared in Business Line on April…

www.medianama.com

Stories about enrollment failures because of missing biometrics made me dig deep into the mathematical theory behind biometrics and I concluded that claims by UIDAI are mostly bunkum.

Since my 5 year old son has a few missing fingerprints because of skin grafting done to fix a crush injury, obviously I have more skin in the game than anyone else to understand the issues around biometric enrollment and authentication failures as even schools were demanding Aadhaar for admission.

The Anonymous colloborator and leaks

There were many comments and questions about the first one, but the twitter handle databaazi pinged me and said, I got the entire savings thing wrong and asked to delete it as I had made understandable first order errors. Nikhil and myself had a long twitter DM session for 3 hours and we did not understand a word of what databaazi told us except that he/she is probably much more knowledgable in the topic of savings.

Both me and Nikhil left the savings part in the first article as it is, but I kept on with my regular DM sessions with databaazi to understand what were the first order errors that was made.

Meanwhile there was one more interview from Nandan and Andhra was specifically mentioned as a place where most of the implementation challenges in PDS were addressed.

Nandan Nilekani: Aadhaar is being demonised because it's so transparent

Aadhaar, India's 12-digit unique identification number, has lately been at the centre of a debate over data protection…

qz.com

PDS is one thing I knew without asking anyone as I had stayed opposite to a PDS shop for close to 10 years. All it took was a simple search to find that the entire AP PDS database was online with details of every single beneficary. A spreadsheet was all that was required to show that most of the claims about AP PDS can be easily debunked. The extended nightly DMs with databaazi were finally making me understand the extent of obfuscation in the savings claims and came the next rebuttal.

A response to Nandan Nilekani's new claims (Updated)

by Anand Venkatanarayanan This article was written as a response to the interview by Nandan Nilekani on Quartz Media…

www.medianama.com

The side effect of the AP PDS research was that almost all the details of beneficiaries were available on most of the government websites and after the first few got reported, there were increasingly more coverage about them.

Debunking the savings claims

My twitter DM sessions with databaazi was getting longer and finally I was able to write up on why the LPG savings claims were wrong. The problem was no one was ready to publish it because it was dense. Meanwhile the famous troll incident occurred and it was quite a surprise to see my name on the wall of iSpirt under the Informed, Fearful and Engaging Quadrant.

My profile picture then was Lord Saturn himself and he seems to be giving his own brutal lessons to a few people on the limits of human intellect and power. After multiple sessions with Nikhil, the article debunking LPG claims was published on June 8, 2017.

Government's claims of Aadhaar savings for the LPG scheme are overstated

By Anand Venkatanarayanan This is Part 3 of a series of analysis by Anand Venkatanarayanan related to claims made about…

www.medianama.com

By now I had fully understood how to analyze Aadhaar savings on any program and NREGA was far simpler. Nikhil again published it on June 29, 2017.

Government's claims of Aadhaar savings for the MNREGA scheme are overstated

By Anand Venkatanarayanan This is Part 4 of a series of analysis by Anand Venkatanarayanan related to claims made about…

www.medianama.com

Writing on the Ken and AltNews

If someone told me that I would be paid money for my writing an year back, my spouse would have laughed out loud. But I did write two paid articles for the Ken on July 2017 and promptly donated it to a few deserving entities.

Everyone gets breached – The Ken

Reliance Jio, Zomato, McDonald's, banks, government programs-everyone is leaking data on you. The question is-what will…

the-ken.com

Aadhaar's Dr Security and Mr Scale Problem – The Ken

On 28 July, newspapers reported that UIDAI, the state-owned agency that manages India's unique identity project…

the-ken.com

The second one had an abrupt ending as many had noticed and I wanted to put out more about the Ola Qarth story (I had actually fallen in love with public writing by now).

With Anivar’s help, I wrote 3 medium posts on that topic.

The Inside Man

By Anivar Aravind and Anand Venkatanarayanan

medium.com

The Inside Man (Part 2)

By: Anivar Aravind and Anand Venkatanarayanan

medium.com

Knowing Your Transactions (and thyself)

By Anand Venkatanarayanan and Anivar Aravind

medium.com

Anivar felt that more people has to know about this as no main stream media organisations were reporting it. So he reached out to AltNews and after a lot of editing, back and forth, we published the full story on 11th August, 2017.

Is GOI's National Informatics Centre also culpable for Abhinav Srivastav's Aadhaar data hack…

There are three people. Person A, Person B and you yourself. Person A somehow manages to get the login details of your…

www.altnews.in

My personal view of the incident became another blog post (where I argued Abhinav must be let go and not be prosecuted)

The inside man (Part 4)

A version of this story appeared in a different form in AltNews. Do read Part 1 (Very technical), Part 2 (Non technical…

medium.com

UP Aadhaar hack case and the World Bank

Every engineer remembers the period when they wrote their best code or root caused a very hard to crack bug for a long time. Investigating the UP Aadhaar hack case and establishing that UIDAI did not know for a full year that their enrollment software was hacked after many many rounds of review with Nikhil was the best root cause analysis I have ever done.

How trustworthy are the entries in the Aadhaar Database?

by Anand Venkatanarayanan The UIDAI has maintained that the central repository (CIDR) which holds biometric data is…

www.medianama.com

I finally understood what Ellen Barry meant when she wrote

In my line of work, there are few things as gratifying as catching someone in a lie

when myself, Sam Jawed and databaazi co-operated together to break the story on the curious case of world bank and Aadhaar savings.

The Curious Case of the World Bank and Aadhaar Savings

Evidence-based policy-making usually proceeds by outlining the problem at hand, discussing various solutions…

thewire.in

A few random thoughts

  1. Very few independent media outlets exist which represent people’s voice. Most of them exist for their own survival and have long ceased to do journalism. If journalism has to survive and truly represent people’s voice, we all have to pay for it either through subscriptions or donations. I don’t see a way out of it.
  2. There is no point blaming journalists to understand technology when even it’s makers don’t understand it fully. However the quotes based journalism of “Babaji-said-Mamaji-said” will not work at all specifically on technology. We have a serious handicap when most journalists don’t develop their own view and instead rely on “ignorant experts” for quotes.
  3. When systems fail often, there is usually a tendency to say “Design is correct; Intent is good; But implementation was flawed”. From a software engineering point of view, this is unadulterated rubbish. There is no such thing as good design and bad implementation, there is only bad system design and lack of understanding of the domain.
  4. Public writing is very hard work and the more contentious the topic is like Aadhaar, the more time it takes to get it right. The average time from picking a topic to getting it published is at least a month. I really don’t understand how reporters survive the stress. I really like the Ken’s model of one good story a “week day” versus 100 half baked stories a day and one good story a quarter.

My position on Aadhaar

I am probably one of the very few who has truly understood the cost of the project in it’s totality (will come out soon as a series) and after knowing it, all I can say is it is a colossal waste of public money which could have been used effectively elsewhere.

I would not allege scams or mal-intent or question the motives of it’s designers. I would not be harsh on the bureaucracy as well because most of them thought that it was indeed a tool for solving leakages and improve efficiency of government services.

The government usually relies on reputed international institutes who advise them on such matters and most of the time their research is not even school grade worthy, but it is given undue importance because of their credibility (I will put out a series of such shoddy research papers to enlighten the readers). So what then is the actual problem?

We are back to Lord Saturn, the idea of limits. The very human problem of being blind to their limits or in other words limited competence and over-estimation of one’s capability. While normal humans suffer for this, those in power can actually make others suffer for their limited competence. When coupled with unbridled ambition, limited competence and power can be a deadly cocktail that guarantees suffering of a large section of the population.

The remedy for this suffering is well known: Constitutional democracy and active citizenry. But it only works if we exercise it meaningfully and with responsibility.

The supreme court will begin the final hearings on this project and my sense is that it will not stop or cancel the program in it’s entirety, but will limit it only in certain areas. And if it does happen, public participation may yet reshape the program to become more useful for the citizenry and less harmful.

But can anyone really predict the future? If my very strange year from an apathetic uncaring citizen to an “informed, fearful and engaging” Aadhaar critic is any indication, emergence of novelty and predictability are mutually incompatible.

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