Understanding UID through “radio tags”


“Do you want to wear an anklet or do you want to go to prison?” said a US consular officer in Hyderabad about the tagging of some Indian students in the United States to monitor their movements. These anklets contain a GPS device that closely monitors the movements of the students, and will alert officials in case they move beyond areas that they have been authorised to. The anklets provide a useful analogy to the Unique ID (UID) project by the government of India. Let me explain.

In an article entitled Prison without walls, Graeme Wood argues that such radio tags were originally created by BI (the market leader in such tracking systems) for cows. Radio tags containing a unique ID would be attached to one cow each. When a cow goes to the feeding station, the station would provide the cow with its ration by recognising the ID. Subsequently, if the cow comes back for a second helping, the unique ID would help the feeding station recognise that the cow has already had its share, and will not serve it any additional helping.

The system was later extended to people. For example, such a device (often in the form of anklets) would be attached to someone under house arrest. The radio tag will be monitored constantly by a sensor at the house, and if the person leaves the house, it would immediately intimate the police about it. This system was later extended in powerful ways by adding a GPS device to the radio tag.

The GPS device allows authorities to provide additional kinds of restrictions and freedoms. For example, a person under house arrest could be monitored, and it also allows other kinds of geographical restrictions on a person. For example, sex offenders are prohibited from going near schools and other areas that have a lot of children. Alcohol related offenders can be asked to stay away from bars, and a police officer will be intimated if such a person stays close to a bar for more than 60 seconds. It can also be used to monitor if the person attends a meeting of alcoholics anonymous, as they have been mandated to, by monitoring if the person is present at a given location on the given time and date.

Norms, freedoms, influences

The system could be understood by focussing on three key components. First of all, there are a set of norms that detail what the subject should and should not do. In the case of cows, the norm is one ration per segment of the day. For someone under house arrest, she is expected to stay within the geographical boundary of the house. For those who have committed sex/alcohol related offences, they are expected to stay away from certain areas.

Secondly, these norms circumscribe the freedoms of the subject. They selectively allow certain cows, certain students, certain people (the sex offenders), and others to do certain things and they prohibit them from doing certain things. They thus determine what kind of freedoms the subjects enjoy.

Thirdly, the anklets and other such IT devices give those in possession of power tremendous influence over the subjects. They do so by helping those in positions of power to establish the identity of the person. This identity helps the influential to closely monitor the actions of the subjects, and this in turn enables them to carefully permit or deny various actions of the subjects. This is often achieved by the threat of a greater punishment if the subject violates the norm that they are supposed to adhere to.

The UID Project

Different IT devices would be required to monitor different kinds of actions. For example, a GPS device would be able to establish if a person is in a bar, but cannot detect it if a person is having alcohol at home. There are other devices that can monitor alcohol content in the body by measuring the nature of sweating in a person’s body. They too have been used in the United States. The UID project by the government of India belongs to a class of such IT projects that can help those in positions of power to identify, monitor and regulate the freedoms of those within the Indian Territory, and Indian citizens abroad.

For example, the government has announced that it will use UID in the Public Distribution System to provide rations to people. They argue that the UID card will prevent people from overdrawing the rations, especially in the names of those who are either not authorized or those who do not even exist in reality. The home ministry is reportedly building the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) that will use the UID to closely monitor where we travel (based on our ticket purchases), who we talk to (using mobile phone data), and an assortment of other things. Such close monitoring will provide the government, especially the security agencies a degree of influence over people: from terrorists to those who oppose corruption vigorously.

By associating such devices with cows and prisons, I may have given a sinister tone to such devices. I should clarify that I’m not entirely against the use of such devices. They are the tools, and their merits should be understood by how they are used, and how they could be used. I will take that up in a subsequent article.

This is the first article in a series entitled UID is a tool. Look for the other articles here.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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