If there’s one thing that unites the people of the world today, it’s anger at establishment politicians. Over the last decade, this anger has fundamentally reshaped global politics at both the national and international levels. Anger in the US led to the election of Donald Trump; anger in Ukraine led to the election of a professional comedian and sitcom star. In Algeria and Sudan, anger toppled longtime dictators. In Mexico, public anger led to the election of leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador; in Brazil, public anger led to the election of the right-winger Jair Bolsonaro. Anger is not a right-wing or left-wing phenomenon; it is simply a phenomenon.
At the heart of this anger is the widespread feeling that government leaders and the democratic institutions that produced them have let people down; that the social contracts once struck are no longer fit for purpose. To update the social contract for the 21st century, governments in both wealthy and poor countries are turning to powerful new technologies. And no system better represents both the extraordinary potential and the considerable risk to political freedom embedded in these new tools than India’s Aadhaar system.
Back in 2010, the Indian government launched Aadhaar, an ambitious biometric identification system, to help keep track of the social services being provided to India’s 1.34 billion citizens. In exchange for iris scans and fingerprints, each Indian national enrolled in the program received a unique 12-digit ID number. With that number, Indian citizens were able to more securely and quickly access their government-funded benefits; the government in turn was better able to crack down on subsidy fraud and collect taxes more efficiently.
By linking Aadhaar with the government’s financial inclusion scheme, called Pradhan Mantri Jhan Dhan Yojana, the Indian government began transferring cash directly into the bank accounts of people unable to pay banking fees or keep the minimum balances necessary to keep their bank accounts open. Eventually though, the government will transfer tax returns, healthcare services, and virtually all government benefits directly to the people, sidestepping India’s convoluted state bureaucracy and the corruption that often accompanies it.
When the program was first started, the Indian government – then under the control of the Indian National Congress political party – vowed that the program would remain voluntary. But under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the program has become increasingly mandatory as part of his “good governance” push despite the BJP’s initial opposition to Aadhaar. For Modi, Aadhaar is the method that ensures all schoolchildren receive their free lunches, that everyone shows up to work and pays the taxes that they owe, and that all the elderly entitled to pensions receive them consistently and on time. But for all the promise of Aadhaar, there’s plenty of peril as well. Start with the logistics – for the system to work, it requires stable and consistent access to both electricity and internet, things that still elude millions of Indians. Then there are the well-founded privacy concerns – in September 2018, while deciding that the Aadhaar program did not violate an individual’s right to privacy, India’s Supreme Court ruled against the mandatory linking of Aadhaar to basic services, such as opening bank accounts, making airline reservations or getting mobile connections. Maybe most concerning of all, Aadhaar means there now exists a centralized database with the personal biometric information of more than a billion people and direct access to all their bank accounts – aside from the worries of government abuse of this information down the road, it also provides an appealing target for hackers of both the state and non-state varieties, some of whom have already attempted to crack into the system with certain, limited success.
These are all risks that the current Indian government is willing to shoulder in exchange for the benefits the system provides. But it is a stark reminder that political leaders around the world are committing to systems they don’t fully understand in the hopes of addressing the legitimate grievances of their people. Aadhaar and systems like it will be one of the most important political stories globally over the next generation – keep your irises on this space.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media, and author of “Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.”