The case for Citizen 1004762548

The government’s proposal to issue identity cards with machine-readable numbers to all citizens has, predictably, raised angry questions. Do you really want to be known as Citizen 1004762548 ?

The Economic Times had a cartoon showing Home Minister Advani stamping the backsides of citizens with bar-codes, of the sort normally stamped on goods sold in super-markets. Some see this as creeping totalitarianism, with Big Brother watching you.

Relax, folks. A personal ID number can hugely save hassles, time and money in our new digital age. It can reduce corruption and bureaucratic delay. It can check tax evasion, embezzlement and impersonation. It can even promote cleaner elections and more transparent politics.

It is not fascist. A liberal democracy like the USA gives everyone what is politely called a social security number but is actually an identity number. You need to quote this number to get a job or driving licence, buy a house or file tax returns, open a bank account or get a credit card or register as a voter. This does not, of course, end all forgery or tax evasion. But it does greatly increase transparency. Wrong-doers leave electronic fingerprints at the scene of crime, and so can be tracked down.

I think even the US system is an obsolete one designed for a non-digital age. India should leap-frog to a superior system tailored to the internet era. Why quote your social security number in order to get another number for your bank account or credit card? Why not have one single number for all purposes?

In India, we get separate numbers for our bank account, ration card, passport, driving licence, credit card, inome tax PAN, voting registration and so on. This unco-ordinated identification system makes for lots of duplication, paperwork and hassle.

If instead we have a single number for all uses, citizens will not have to file fresh papers, fresh photos and fresh certificates for each new function or application. They will no longer be held up by babus wanting to delay applications and extort bribes. Since our population exceeds one billion, every person should get a ten-digit number.

A single number will greatly facilitate what is called e-governance–enabling citizens to use the internet to make applications to and get information from the government, without having to visit goverment offices. E-governance is being introduced by some states without identity numbers, bute surely such numbers will imrove transparency and governance. Those who evade land ceilings by buying in different villages and districts will be exposed. The use of multiple bank accounts to evade taxes will be exposed. Fraud and impersonation will more easily be detected.

There can be many legitimate worries too. What happens if I want, for legitimate reasons, to operate several bank accounts? No problem: let bank accounts have 12 digits, of which the first ten identify the account holder and the next two digits represent his different bank accounts.

What about privacy and security? Surely everybody who knows my identity number should not automatically know my credit card number too? Well, a credit card number has 16 digits. Let the first ten digits represent a person’s identity, and the remaining six be secret numbers to ensure privacy. This combination of an identity number with additional numbers will provide privacy and security to honest folk, yet help track down crooks.

Today, many voters find their names are not on the roll, or that somebody has voted in their place. With machine-readable ID cards, registration can done on-line, bogus voting will be curbed, and electronic ticking can check multiple voting.

The Supreme Court wants politicians to reveal their criminal records and assets. Politicians resist this. But if everybody has an ID number, a computerised search will reveal all the criminal cases associated with any individual. Political transparency will triumph.

Privacy demands that tax and bank records must be encrypted and so kept secret. But magistrates should be able to order de-encryption in criminal cases, thus helping catch crooks.

I have no wish to be dogmatic. We need a public debate before introducing this syetm. For some purposes, a universal number may carry too much risk of loss of privacy or security. Let exceptions emerge from the debate. But let us be very clear about one thing. Our big problem is not a lack of privacy but a lack of transparency. And an equally widespread problem is the hassle of endless paperwork. Both need to be tackled by the tools of the new digital age.

Even the best ideas need good marketing. Avoid using the phrase \”identity card\”, which has echoes of totalitarianism. The US calles it a social security number, to give citizens a feeling of comfort. In India, we have no social security. Calling it catch-the-crooks card will be resented by honest citizens. Instead, we should stress the ID number as a tool of e-governance. So, Mr Advani, please call it a freedom-from-hassle card, or jhanjat-se-mukti card. That will sell the idea better.

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