Technologies of Identity in Digital India

Scenes from #DIGITALINDIA: Fintech, Aadhaar and Contesting Identities

The rise of fintech, or financial technologies, in India can be traced alongside the story of the country’s national ID project, the biometrics-based Aadhaar. Fintech and biometrics are both supposed to be, loosely, technologies to attack complex and ‘wicked’ problems – poverty, corruption, social exclusion. Both shape practices of identity through trails of financial transactions and biometric data. Both fintech initiatives and biometrics claim to ‘reduce friction’ and increase trust – in people, but mostly in big data infrastructures.

The promise of big data in India – heralded by taglines like #DigitalIndia and #ShiningIndia –promotes a vision of the country imagined by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Modi. Yet this vision occurs against a backdrop of ferocious Hindu violence, breaking through a thin membrane that has barely held the country together for 70 years. This is a time of 'Muslim registries'1 and 'beef lynchings', and of ‘love jihad’2 on top of endemic caste discrimination and violence.

This essay juxtaposes two simultaneously unfolding realities in India: that fintech applications and Aadhar both seek to fix identity firmly; and that caste and religious identities, in particular, are being contested and challenged by everyday people, particularly those who are online. The two realities do not necessarily confront each other, but to those whose identities are under attack, opaque technologies in the hands of the powerful can feel threatening, especially those that sort and classify people.

Scene One: Stardust

In January 2016, Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at the federally administered Central University in Hyderabad, killed himself, leaving behind a note that said:

“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust.”

Vemula was an active member of the Dr. Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), an activist student network on Indian university campuses. This activist network was formed in the name of Dr. Ambedkar, independent India’s first law minister and author of the Indian Constitution. He had degrees in Economics from Columbia University and the London School of Economics.

Dr. Ambedkar is known for being an advocate for women’s rights and the rights of Dalits, a caste group formerly known as ‘Untouchables’ (Dalit in Sanskrit means downtrodden), to which he also belonged. The entry in his Wikipedia page says: "In 1918, he became Professor of Political Economy in Mumbai. Although he was successful with the students, other professors objected to his sharing a drinking-water jug with them."

Caste in the sense of jaat or jaati, is an enduring, fundamental variable in India’s byzantine system of social stratification3. It is also perhaps the most brutal because it is both fixed and yet an entirely social construct; a person born into a particular jaati can do nothing to escape it. It takes on the manner of something biologically determined and passed on from parent to child with no option for conversion, mixing or ‘lightening’. Endogamy, or marriage within jaati, is the expected norm. Inter-caste marriages happen but are met with everything from social snubs to criminal violence; the children resulting from this union take on their father’s caste. There is no quadroon version of jaati. There is ‘passing’, however: it is not uncommon for Indians who are from an unfavourable or ‘lower’ caste to change their names in order to pass as a member of a more favourable caste to access housing, jobs, social inclusion, and to avoid violence.

Caste discrimination is practiced across all religious groups, however Hinduism is strongly associated with its creation and perpetuation. Still, in 1956, Ambedkar publicly converted to Buddhism to make a point about how even as independent India's first Law Minister, as a Dalit, he was not immune to discrimination. 600,000 of Ambedkar’s followers converted with him, and many Dalits across India are Buddhist today.

Through his connection with the Dr. Ambedkar Students Association, Vemula participated in the campus protests against the death penalty, caste discrimination, and the violence by nationalist right wing Hindu students’ unions. Due to his visibility in these protests, Vemula was the subject of official complaints that made their way up the administrative chain to the Union Minister in New Delhi. The scholarship he received from the government was withheld. He was targeted for his activism. It's likely this drove him to suicide.

His death sparked student protests across the country. The biggest was on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in New Delhi. The students’ reasons for protest echoed Vemula’s and were captured in slogans about freedom from caste, feudalism, and patriarchy. Student union leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, became instantly visible among supporters and opponents alike. There is even a popular dubstep track made of his rousing protest slogans. So threatening was the protest that fake videos of Kanhaiya Kumar were made, wherein he and two other JNU students were shown at a rally shouting slogans in support of political self-determination for the state of Kashmir. Three news channels aired the fake videos, and the students were arrested on charges of sedition.

Scene Two: Aadhaar

“What they want is to bury their identity, and what they are threatened with is tagging them with this identity in perpetuity” - Usha Ramanathan

“Digital Identity for a #DigitalIndia” - OT Morpho website, makers of biometrics technologies used by the UIDAI for Aadhaar.

In 2010, the Indian government established the Unique ID Authority of India (UIDAI). The UIDAI was tasked with developing the infrastructure for a unique biometric-based identification system; the ID card is called Aadhaar (Sanskrit for ‘foundation’). Aadhaar is expected to eliminate corruption and ‘black money’, and fraud in the receipt of social welfare. It is also expected to make bureaucratic processes smoother–opening bank accounts, applying for a passport, receiving a pension, or buying a SIM card–through a speedy identification verification process.

Aadhaar is comprised of a unique 12 digit number associated with biometrics such as fingerprints and iris scans. An Aaadhaar card applicant must also show older proofs of identity – birth certificates, proofs of residence, and so on. However, “The Aadhaar enrollment process does not capture details like caste, religion, income, health, geography, etc.” It is not mandatory for all citizens to register for an Aadhaar card; however, anecdotal evidence shows that it is quickly becoming standard to ask for Aadhaar-based verification in everyday transactions, from renting an apartment to buying a SIM card. At the time of publication, Indian courts are still discussing how far Aaadhar reaches and if it should be associated with income tax filings, phone numbers, banking, and so on.

Usha Ramanathan, a lawyer and expert on Aadhaar, also criticises the process and manner in which Aadhaar has been rolled out: Writing in an op-ed for the Indian Express, she notes that “illegality and shrinking spaces for liberty…have become the defining character of the project,” and details a number of violations that affect the most disadvantaged in society:

“Children are not to get their midday meal if they do not have their UID embedded in the database. Victims of the Bhopal gas disaster are threatened with being taken off the compensation list. Disabled persons are not to get skill training, or aids and appliances. Women rescued from prostitution are not entitled to rehabilitation till their numbers are in the system – making anonymity the first casualty. Persons doing manual scavenging are not to be rehabilitated – as Bezwada Wilson has been saying all along, what they want is to bury their identity, and what they are threatened with is tagging them with this identity in perpetuity. No rehabilitation of bonded labour without UID. No anti-retroviral therapy for HIV+ persons without the UID identifying them. And the list goes on.”

Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in Bangalore shows that fingerprints and iris scans are not robust markers of identity. The Aadhaar process itself can be hacked; in 2015, a man (who, it turns out, worked in an Aadhaar enrollment centre) applied for an Aadhaar card for his dog.

Scene Three: Fintech

Physical money, both paper and plastic, is often described as disappearing into mobile payments and exchanges. People in Asia and Africa are said to be on the cusp of a revolution, something ‘game-changing’: fintech.

Financial technologies, are (primarily) mobile phone based apps for financing, loans, credit, retail payments, money transfers, asset management and other financial services. The technology and its products circumvent the high cost of banking services, the unavailability of ‘bricks-and-mortar’ banks, and the complex procedures required to open a bank account.

In China, WeChat and AliPay have quickly become the most commonly used platforms for financial transactions, from paying for products to tipping buskers on the street. “In the Philippines, more people have Facebook accounts than bank accounts” says Ron Hose, founder and CEO of, a mobile payment platform. The platform claims to have “saved Filipinos more than 1.8 centuries of standing in line since 2014.” According to CNBC, Asia has a “sizeable population that still lacked access to traditional means of banking, but had more than one billion mobile users. The number was expected to grow in the future, particularly in under-penetrated, populous markets such as India and China.”

N’juguna Ndug’u is the former governor of the Central Bank of Kenya and helped mainstream the popular, ubiquitous, M-Pesa mobile payment platform4. He believes there is evidence to prove “the power of digital financial services to contribute to improved living standards and economic opportunities for people on low incomes. The momentum toward digital economies is nearly unstoppable and the multiple benefits it affords are increasingly becoming real experiences for millions of people – particularly in the developing world.”

Phil Mader, however, is not so sure that fintech will help the poor. He argues against the ‘card crusaders’ who want to impose cashless transactions, by pointing out that digital transactions shift unseen costs on to the user (whereas using cash is ‘free’) and leave trails that “cast a glaring spotlight onto [people’s] lives”; in the context of weak data protection and privacy laws, there is a “fine ethical line”.

For Mader, the big data of the poor is a “potential treasure trove for payment providers, the broader financial industry, governments and, lastly, the behavioural economics profession.” This “treasure trove” allows financial service providers to to identify wealthy and less wealthy customers, and behavioural economists to develop ‘nudges’ to influence people. Third, as Mader points out, digital transactions do not necessarily reveal trails of corruption and tax evasion. “Unless one believes that the ill-gotten wealth documented in the Panama Papers arrived there by boat, cash clearly isn’t the culprit behind many societal ills related to finance.”

Scene Four: Verifying Identities

“I dream of a Digital India where access to information knows no barriers” - Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India

Indians have a wide range of fintech mobile platforms to choose from, many of which, like PayTm, became popular during the Indian Government’s removal of cash notes from public circulation in November 2016. Fintech and other businesses have received a significant boost thanks to Aadhaar. In 2015, the Indian government passed the ‘Aadhaar Act’, as a ‘Money Bill’ in parliament, allowing private companies to use Aadhaar as the basis of verification services to enable fintech and other businesses.

In an interview, an employee of the credit scoring and verification company Lenddo acknowledges that her company5

“see[s] the progress possible with the Indian market because the government is providing policies that are flexible and supportive in terms of making finance tech possible. The Indian market is one of the biggest markets. We are hoping to be one of the major players there as Fintech - India is one of the countries at the forefront - one of the leaders in the industry - we expect to really grow the business in India. It’s very easy to set up fin-tech in India.”

OnGrid and IndiaStack are two such verification infrastructure platforms. E-KYC, or ‘electronic-Know Your Customer’, a modality popular with banks to verify customer identities, is now also using Aadhaar.

The OnGrid homepage has images of people who provide manual and domestic services – bell boys, domestic helpers, drivers. The class dimension is hard to ignore: people in these roles are less likely to be trustworthy, and OnGrid is a way to verify them, the images seem to say.

IndiaStack is a set of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that allow development of digital infrastructure for businesses, to enable identity verification and make financial and other commercial transactions ‘frictionless’. Paperless, cashless, and with consent: this is the promise of IndiaStack. According to a blogpost on the company’s website, “A key manifestation is that the interactions, transactions, and data exchanged in this ecosystem will make India “data rich”, allowing data-driven decision making for scale and inclusion.”

Both OnGrid and IndiaStack proactively discuss the idea of consent, which it says “allows data to move freely and securely to democratise the market for data”; however, consent appears limited to asking for permission to use information that was shared in situations of questionable consent, such as through social media.

The promise of frictionless verification of identities has been kept. In March 2017, a digital technology consultant signed up to the mobile operator Reliance Jio. Describing his experience in the aforementioned blogpost, he writes:

“Reliance Jio, announced that they had crossed 50 million subscribers in a mere 83 days...This made Jio the world’s fastest growing tech company surpassing the likes of Facebook, WhatsApp, and Skype. This astonishing achievement was made possible by the strategy of rolling out e-KYC across all outlets in India, allowing SIM activation in under 5 minutes. 95% of activations were done using e-KYC resulting at a staggering average rate of addition of 6 Lakh subscribers per day. I experienced this first-hand – I went through all required steps of identification, KYC, SIM card application and document signing – all in a couple of minutes, in seamless, paperless, and secure way.”

The high subscriber additions were possible on the back of the introduction of Aadhar. However, in early July 2017, a website called surfaced that claimed to reveal personal data of Reliance Jio users: full name, mobile number, email-id, SIM activation date and even Aadhaar number (technically, an Aadhaar number itself is not sensitive–it is meant for public sharing). While Reliance was quick to claim that the data was inauthentic, some Reliance Jio users were able to find their details on the site. As a result of investigations into the breach, a computer science student who had dropped out of college was arrested and his devices are being forensically tested.

A speculative dystopia, in which a person’s name or social media profile is used to make decisions about them, turns out to be not so speculative.

Lenddo is a credit application verification application that is being rolled out in 15 countries. The application's machine learning algorithm takes three minutes to process an individual applicant's smart phone browsing history, GPS history, and social media to generate “insights” predictive of the applicant's creditworthiness. However, as an employee of the company clarifies in an interview, a single data point, like a single Facebook post, does not determine someone's creditworthiness6:

“We gather at least 17,000 data points for every application...we look at behavioural patterns not a single incident. We look at if you shop online and how much not at all the things you buy. We need to look at a to of data points to create a pattern and this is based on an algorithmic model we have developed ..You also need to have a pattern of three years to determine something, not a random one-off thing.”

At the start of banking and financial institutions in the industrial age, creditworthiness was based on an individual's social graph and personal networks. This evolved into creditworthiness on the basis of actual financial indicators, such as income, assets and job security. Yet with fintech applications like Lenddo and ZestMoney we see a return to an earlier metric of creditworthiness, albeit without an individual's control or consent.

In July 2017, the Economic Times reported that two new fintech startups, EarlySalary and ZestMoney, were using customers’ online activity to track and verify them. The CEO of EarlySalary narrated a story in which the company rejected an online loan application made by a young woman who was perfectly eligible for it. They were able to ascertain that she was actually taking the loan out for her live-in boyfriend, who was unemployed. He had had applied for a loan himself and had been rejected. Here is how they figured it out:

"The startup’s machine learning algorithm used GPS and social media data –both of which the duo had given permissions for while downloading the app –to make the connection that they were in a relationship. The final nail in the coffin: the lady in question was transferring money every month to the boyfriend which showed up in the bank statements they had submitted for the loans"

The story goes on to quote the CEO of ePayLater who says that their app’s machine learning algorithm uses anywhere from 800-5000 data points to assess a customer’s willingness and ability to repay a loan: from keyboard typing speeds (“if there is a lot of variation in your usual behavior, the machine will raise an alert”) to Facebook (“Accessing her social media, we learnt they were dating”) to LinkedIn (“To understand if one is working or not we usually check his LinkedIn profile”).

Epilogue: Data and discrimination

There is no tidy stack of big data infrastructures that can be plugged in to eliminate violence, poverty and corruption in India (or anywhere); but fintech and biometrics are the latest in a long history of schemes and programs attempting to do just that. There are untidy, imperfect interconnections between digital technology, privacy and the contestations and manipulations of identity currently underway in India. In addressing these places of imperfection, we can deconstruct the ways in which big and biometric data become a novel tool to perpetuate long-standing and deep-rooted forms of discrimination.

Taken together, the scenes outlined show that there are connections between a young man's suicide, and identities based on biometrics and social media feeds verified by predictive algorithms. Caste, biometrics and predictive algorithms are forms of power masquerading as knowledge about people, and social media-derived social graphs serve as proxies for trust in them. Opting out is no longer an option. The chilling effect on speech can only be speculated upon, until the individual who has their creditworthiness scored low, and realises why this has happened, and changes their internet habits.

The agenda of the ruling BJP is the reconfiguration of India’s confident syncretism into a Hindu nation, enabled by corporate financing and neoliberal approaches to governance. Concerns around big data and its machinations seem like a low priority in the context of physical and caste violence, violence against civil society, human rights defenders, journalists, marginalised communities, Muslims.

Yet, on August 24, 2017, the Supreme Court of India passed a historic judgment upholding the constitutional right to privacy and drew clear lines joining personal identity, privacy, dignity and the health of a democracy. It draws a link between privacy and personal identity, including sexual and reproductive identities and choices; and writes extensively about ‘informational privacy’:

“Knowledge about a person gives a power over that person. The personal data collected is capable of effecting representations, influencing decision making processes and shaping behaviour. It can be used as a tool to exercise control over us like the ‘big brother’ State exercised. This can have a stultifying effect on the expression of dissent and difference of opinion, which no democracy can afford.”

The legality of biometrics-based Aadhaar is yet to be decided in light of this significant ruling. The big and small outrages of visibility and the struggle to remain anonymous now have to contend with this development. Indians can begin to craft new strategies and challenges in response. This epilogue is actually a kind of prologue.

Maya Ganesh is a writer, reader, feminist activist and technology researcher who worked with Tactical Tech for close to eight years. She is currently pursuing a PhD at Leuphana University about standards and measures of accountability for non human and human intelligences. She can be reached via Twitter @mayameme


1: US President Donald Trump claimed that he would establish a 'Muslim Registry' to further his national security agenda, which also includes deporting undocumented immigrants.

2: Love Jihad is a word used to refer to a phenomenon Hindu nationalists claim is on the rise: Muslim men feigning love for Hindu women in order to convert them and have them bear Muslim children. They see this as a threat to the Hindu nation they claim India is. Hindu mobs are known to be criminally violent towards young couples and their families, both Hindu and Muslim.

3: Some more excellent resources on caste in India are the Dr. Ambedkar archive at Columbia University available here and the film Fandry (2013) available on Netflix.

4: It is vital to mention that M-PESA actually evolved from poor people’s appropriation of what was an experiment in credit by DFID, a microfinance initiative called Faulu, and the mobile operator Safaricom. It was discovered that poor people were repaying loans for each other, gifting money and airtime to each other. It was more than a year before Safaricom discovered the opportunity to develop M-PESA as an ‘official’ money transfer and payments platform (Hughes and Lonie 2007 in Mader 2016).

5: Skype interview with the author; October 18, 2017.

6: Skype interview with the author, October 18, 2017.