Of mice, men and numbers


There will always be a part, and always a very large part of every community, that have no care but for themselves, and whose care for themselves reaches little further than impatience of immediate pain, and eagerness for the nearest good. Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) Taxation No Tyranny

This seems to be the guiding philosophy behind all agencies, technologically empowered to gather information for their own ends. Governments have been, for very valid reasons, collecting in-depth information about the citizens, their location, education, well-being  and so on. It is now groups with less benign motives who gather information for their own ends. Not public information which is available from different sources, but invasive, personal information about routine activities that create a profile as X-Ray or MRI examination do of body.

Data – in itself an abstraction (meta-data?) – has come to represent materiality. Its value has outgrown that of idea. Lust for bits of insignificant reality has led to disregard and disdain for the individual. It was the idea that created a set of conditions known as democracy. Following the eternal ethos, Mahatma Gandhi stressed on purity of means to attain the desired (pure) end. Time and again his followers were frustrated by his insistence on absolute respect for this principle. It is evident in most everyday situations, the harm caused by neglect of this. The greatest harm, one that creeps in silently, is that impurity of action corrodes the mind. TheSpeaker

The individual, deconstructed into bits (and bytes), ceases to exist as a whole. In past two decades, with threat of major war averted, terrorism has come up as cause of great fear. So great is this fear, that statesman all over the world overlook what is near and at hand for a remote future possibility. It is well known that fear unites against a common enemy; and so, with unreal made real they can avoid the burden of facing the actual truth. Suspicion lurks everywhere. A perfect scenario for profit and control. It appears that along-with opportunities for trade and commerce the commodity of fear has best been globalized. And the natural way to answer it, is anger. On other hand protest is born out of pain. If the individual pains are to be overshadowed it is best achieved by a common anger. The few voices that still rise occasionally may be labeled hysterical outbursts and disregarded.

“We can conclude that the three types of tests are measuring incommensurate quantities and therefore [we] should not be at all surprised when the values for the same technologies vary widely and unpredictably over the three types of tests.” – WaPoMa (Wayman – San José State University, Possolo – US National Institute of Standards and Technology Mansfield -the UK National Physical Laboratory)

“We have set a target of enrolling one million citizens a day by October to issue the UID number for about 600 million people over the next three years,” state-run Unique Identification Authority of India ( UIDAI) chairman Nandan N. Nilekani said. With billions of people going without proper food, potable water, adequate shelter and minimum healthcare, huge amount of money is spent on collecting information purported to alleviate dearth of same. Like a cat landing on its feet, Technology somehow finds ways to foster its own progress. In the past century, data has constantly been moved from one format to another. That it is a unit for creation  of actual plans, services or goods is conveniently overlooked by all concerned. The more the data, greater the ‘letter’ of law to bury its ‘spirit’ beneath. Exercise is so very physical that this attributes succeeds in obliterating the real idea of health.

Metrics has always existed as account of actions performed and proposed, but bio-metrics is taking things too far.  Specially, when the very science, used to emphasize their solidity, admits unreliability. In the race for material existence, elements that vie with each other to propel growth in particular direction, are control and profit. They are more likely to cooperate than conflict. Human dignity and well-being are the prime sufferers; though knowledge, tradition and gentler human emotions are equal prey. One is forced to take the cudgel when it is a matter for survival. A total of 730,887,511 citizens in 35 states have been registered as voters  by Election Commission in India as on 2010.  These people are responsible for the live and vibrant state of democracy in India. Shortfalls, pitfalls and hard-calls have been subsidized by these people of whom 456 million are estimated by World Bank to live below poverty line. It is on behalf of these people who have little to lose but their lives, that grand projects for security and surveillance are taken up. It is said car crashes kill 400 times more people than international terrorism does in developed countries; possibly some exaggeration. But, one of the reasons given for creating a national database that records every individual perfectly through use of finger-print and iris-scan, was to ensure they received payment for their labour under MG-NREGS scheme. The national rural employment guarantee scheme has been beleaguered by reports of corruption and misuse every now and then.   A Bangalore based Socio-tech thinker points out flaw in such a policy.

Surveillance in any society is like salt in cooking — essential in small quantities but completely counter- productive even slightly in excess. Blanket surveillance makes privacy extinct, it compromises anonymity, essential ingredients for democratic governance, free media, arts and culture, and, most importantly, commerce and enterprise. The Telegraph Act only allowed for blanket surveillance as the rarest of the rare exception. The IT Act, on the other hand, mandates multitiered blanket surveillance of all lawabiding citizens and enterprises. Sunil Abraham

David Moss does not really need the research report Fundamental issues in biometric performance testing but this does simplify his argument against expenditure undertaken by politicians without understanding true import of promoters of concerned technology. In his article, he raises relevant questions:

Why are the UK Home Office spending taxpayers’ money on the biometrics in ePassports and in residence permits for non-EEA nationals? (That’s £650 million of taxpayers’ money, split between IBM and CSC.) Why are the Home Office paying VFS Global and CSC to register the biometrics of millions of visa applicants all over the world like so many schoolboy stamp collectors? Why are UK nationals paying three times the correct price for a passport?

Why has Pakistan bothered to register the biometrics of 96 million citizens and to issue 70 million of them with biometric ID cards? All that effort. And the result? Not the harmonious state of law-abiding politically tranquil domestic peace and efficient public services sometimes touted as the automatic consequence of ID card schemes.

Why is India spending billions on Aadhaar, which depends on biometrics whose reliability is, so say the titans,  utterly unknowable? And will the Unique Identification Authority of India ever answer my question how they can claim to offer unique identification when, based on their own figures, they would have to perform 18,000,000,000,000 manual checks to prove uniqueness? And why do they think Aadhaar will eradicate corruption, rather than automate corruption?

Even if the corruption does not get automated, exploitation is sure to rise. The ideal of justice has not been realized to this day, where chances of its need and denial rise with poverty. When in ’80s an Indian politician first spoke of ‘age-of-computer’, it turned into a decade long joke. It was turn of the millennium with successful battle of Indian engineers with Y2K , that the country accepted this machine. But the vision of the leader is yet to be fulfilled.

Email rides a Snail

Departmental head in capital sends email to 400 state offices. Same mail is cc:d to 40 offices by 10 regional offices. 4 Sub-regional offices forward mail again to 10 local offices. Local office replies sub-regional office with cc to regional office and State office. The local office replies are collected, collated and sent by sub-regional office regional office with cc to State office. Till all intermediary offices have collected replies at all levels and sent collated report, State office is assumed to not have received information.

Almost whole of Indian bureaucracy has been trained in use of computers, the training was merely instructional. The  bureaucracy steeped in triplicate carbon copies, wax sealed envelopes, binders and files, uses computers in same way. It accepted this technology only when ‘budget’ was allocated to purchase equipment. For a few years the stand-alone PC purchased with the meager budget was kept under lock and key. Next, it was kept on the office head’s table as a prestige symbol. Now that the bosses have learnt to command their secretaries to ‘email it’, the hired help down the line sends the mail using security passwords meant for office-head. Partly due overwork, lack of education and curiosity, partly due their simplicity, these hired hands have not embarrassed their bosses in any grave manner so far to the notice. The Indian office-worker has adapted these gadgets to the office-routine. Use of paper (no longer the cheap rice-paper or recycled ream) has gone up; add new varieties of consumables – ribbon, cartridge, toner etc. for printers, diskettes, cd and dvd packs, covers, storage box, spare mouse and keyboard. There was a time when one had to seek approval and sanction before purchase of a USB drive, but with costs coming within ‘purchase limit’ of the D.D.O. (Drawing & Disbursing Officer), they are almost treated as consumables now. The gadget which is every official’s favorite is the Scanner. Many of the still tech-challenged  bureaucrat have come to add sixth word to their technical vocabulary – pdf (after PC, mouse, Window, email and Excel). So look up any departmental website and after first four primary pages, all links lead to a wait while the pdf document gets loaded to reveal a slip-shod scan of a manually typed, handwritten or smudgy printout. Even the ‘right-to-information’ section is a bundle of surface-mail received marked cover page with rest scanned without removing stapling pins on many a websites. The only person who manages to meet his goals is the ‘vendor’. From devising specifications, testing tools, conditions, limitations to providing the actual product: it is his to reason why, theirs to do…

“To prove uniqueness, every single Indian would have to investigate and resolve 15,000 false positives. Long before they had finished, many of them would be dead, many more Indians would have been born, and the task would remain incomplete. Using UIDAI’s own figures, India can be confident that the proof of uniqueness is not achievable. Not in the real world.” David Moss

Navigation is a concept that has not found the bureaucratic shores yet. Data is sent from offices, compiled, authorized and sent to central network officials on compact disks who upload it on the departmental website. All autonomous departments contract web-management out to service providers. Data of one office often gets displayed on the web-pages of another located elsewhere. As the municipal corporations and other revenue-collecting agencies have begun to digitize data, consumers have been penalized in all possible manners. This is one place where Moore’s law works with its corollaries. There are reports of people committing suicide because an electricity power company billed them a thousand times or so, insisting on pay-first-then-settle clause.

To a brotherhood whose commitment to serve (well, who.. people? state? itself?) was never clear in the first place, the abstraction – ‘rules’ – have just gained more of same. The ambiguity between order received digitally and in print creates new dichotomy that makes it harder for people to benefit from the office. That computers can be used to automate and streamline routine business is alien to most.

None of them were educated about possibilities of technology. In the usual brash manner, they were thrown as babies into water to learn swimming. Only catch was that unlike babies, they had the burden of their primary duties to perform. That is why that as they mastered the new gadget, they molded their traditional moves  on to it.

” UID can be an easy way for verifying one’s Twitter and Facebook account,” Nilekani added. He had clarified that the API calls will remain free for the next couple of years. medianama

It is with such a setup that the great challenge of creating a single database is being undertaken. A simple adage followed even by these people is not to put all eggs in one basket. A state of mind that would scarcely notice humanity going remiss, yet is fraught with ‘human errors’ is not ready for the giant leap. Pressing for one single national card implies lack of those very skills that are required to keep data secure. Secure, from whom? The project plans to give the data free for the first two years. It is an investment in panacea with false hope and no logical notion as to how it would improve anything?  And in all these calculations, has anyone included the question of responsibility? If at end of this exercise, a citizen suffers in any way due to flawed idea itself, how would he be recompensed for tangible and intangible losses? Forget the individual, has any study been made what would happen to country on the database becoming available to inimical interests? A worst-case assessment should still be presented for public appraisal. Is not that what right-to-information ensures? Check out #UID on twitter to gauge  anxiety of citizens. Seeking permission to access one’s bank account information – on what ground can it be justified and what assurance is forwarded for security from abuse of this information? When one comes to learn the reasoning of people connected with its implementation, the promise appears as false as premise it rests on. Anjan Lahiri, CEO of Mindtree is reported to base its success on such beliefs.

Lahiri told me last year that the project will succeed in India, where the UK failed, because it is about alleviating poverty rather than privacy… he went further and explained how the ID scheme will support a cashless society. He said all vendors will have a biometric reader and citizens can pay for things with a fingerprint scan. Even a bag of rice. Karl Flinders

Ideas broken up into instruction / regulations / practices, like leaves snatched from trees, shrivel and die. Some do live on as signifiers of their original selves between pages of a schoolgirl’s diary. A man whom the world has come to revere, had rebelled in Africa against being turned into a number; he lit the lamp of non-violent protest,  first illumined India with glow of independence and then suffused the world. Would this man have accepted to be labeled ‘unique’ with a number pressed on  ISO/ IEC  7810 sized ‘id’ card?

Is that what is happening to the idea of freedom? Some are quick to point out that it needs to be sacrificed, in order to be secure or safe or healthy… How is such a thought-process different from open-shut logic of local goon or mobster? If I have to pay my brother for my liberty, then we are not equals  —  the triad together constitutes true freedom. It was to do away with balance tilting in favour of any, that monarchs were removed to welcome people’s government.

Michael Moore recalls that on his foreman’s salary in a factory, his father had managed to pay off mortgage on his house, could afford a decent life for his family, taking care of their health and education expenses. This feat is no longer possible in America.

If the idea is stale and not practicable any more, why do we cheer and hale the Arab Spring? Why when a non-political thinker raised his voice against trying tyranny of corruption and was joined by all and sundry, did we begin to hope for an Indian Summer?  After all, what great facility / reward / boon have the people received that they are expected to give back a whit more of their freedom. The elusive answer, authoritative in paradox is:   Progress.  You may refuse to take this answer, but it shall be proved to you (you guessed it, with perfect data) that human kind in 2011 is in much better shape than a century or millennium back.  Planets are not similes in songs but tourist destinations. There are more democratic countries in the world – 190 without dispute regarding sovereignty out of 213 nations according to UN.

If the world today exists and functions on principles of liberty, equality, fraternity then should not the ‘cost’ of ‘progress’ be calculated in advance and citizens informed rather than being charged/ penalized later for a service they neither needed, demanded nor would have chosen knowing the costs. 1984 has gone but its dystopia is yet a cherished dream for some. Is it necessary for this nightmare to come real for those who never dreamt of it?

It all boils down to simple truth. Choosing matter over mind, Mammon over Muse and expediency over fairness. We have to publicly accept that all our actions are towards celebration of man and not machine, system, progress or whatever label the profit-control greed may choose to hide itself. Cherish the idea of uniqueness of man, not number. The nearest good is not that near and no good at all.

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