Identity and Anonymity
A balance needs to be drawn between the need for social identity on the one hand, and the very human right to personal privacy.
The evolutionary success of Homo sapiens is quite inexplicable. There is very little to distinguish us from the other species who inhabit the planet — in fact our evolutionary ancestors were lower down the food chain than hyenas. Yet, somehow, over the course of millennia, we’ve managed to become the most powerful species on the planet.
In his latest book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari puts forward an unusual theory to explain this. Harari argues that the one thing that distinguishes us from apes is our ability to believe in myths — notions like religion and money that are completely made up — in pursuit of which we are willing to make tremendous personal sacrifices. One such myth is the concept of the nation-state. Citizens believe in the notion of nationality and take upon themselves the common identity that a nation-state provides. This belief encourages them to act in concert with other citizens to achieve national goals — even if doing so comes at a personal cost. As a result, nations achieve far more than a single family or even an entire tribe could hope to accomplish. No other animal has the concept of myth-making and hence none can match the accomplishments of humankind.
While there are many elements that make up the myth of nationhood, one of the most prominent among these is identity. It is the concept that establishes the relationship between the individual and the state and allows us to perform our social responsibilities and lay claim to our legal rights. It offers us the means to avail of government facilities and participate in commercial dealings. More importantly, it ensures that the services to which we are entitled actually get to us and are not diverted to someone else. Given the complexity of modern society, reliable identity is critical to our daily existence. The alternative — complete anonymity — is clearly undesirable as it does damage to the myth of the nation-state.
All nation-states have mechanisms to confer identity — from citizenship records that list births and deaths to government registers that contain details of people entitled to various benefits and services. Increasingly, governments around the world are coming around to believe in the need for standardization of national identity. Currently, over 80 nation-states provide some form of national identification number or card to their citizens and even though they were all originally deployed by the government, these forms of identity are more often than not used in all transactions, be they with private parties or with the government.
Aadhaar is India’s mechanism to provide its citizens with a non-repudiable identity. Once it has been rolled out completely, the stated hope is that vast swathes of the population that have, till now, existed outside the mainstream will be able to avail of services and benefits that are currently denied to them for want of identification.
The opposition to the widespread adoption of Aadhaar has, of late, become increasingly vocal. The fear being expressed is that Aadhaar poses a grave risk to personal privacy and that no matter what the benefits may be, its continued proliferation is not worth the potential harm that it could cause. Opponents of the scheme stand against the very concept of a state-conferred identity, preferring anonymity over having to part with their biometrics.
It is important to recognize that identity and anonymity sit at two ends of the same spectrum. As much as the opponents of the national identity scheme might prefer a life of complete anonymity over the risk of State surveillance, if all of us live and work without any form of reliable identity, society would crumble into chaos in very short order. Equally, as much as the government needs to be able to identify its citizens in order for them to play a part in the grand mission of the nation, it must afford them the opportunity to retain their personal privacy.
Neither extreme is acceptable. A balance needs to be drawn between the need for social identity on the one hand, and the very human right to personal privacy.
In my view, this can only be achieved by enacting a privacy law that recognizes the right of the individual to keep certain aspects of their lives private (from both the State as well as other citizens), but which, at the same time, ensures that everyone has the ability to use a non-repudiable, tamper-proof identity in order to be able to function optimally in society. Where any harm is suffered by the individual on account of any violation of his right to personal privacy, this law must prescribe strict punishment for the perpetrator. After all, if we want to preserve and enhance the myth of the nation-state, we would do well to preserve the operational functionality of one of its cornerstones.
This article was first published in The Mint under a column called Ex Machina on technology, law and everything in between.