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Why are tech giants falling all over themselves wooing the UID babe?

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There have been recent reports of tech giants like Yahoo and Cisco showing their interest in the UID project and trying to woo the Indian government and especially Mr. Nilekani, and trying to convince that they be given the contracts based on their relevant expertise and experience.

“The UID project involves a huge database. We, at Yahoo, have expertise in handling such huge amount of data. We met the Prime Minister today and discussed, among other things, how Yahoo can help the Government in the project,” Ms Bartz said here at an editorial round table with the media. However, Yahoo also said that it was not looking at the UID project for any commercial interest but to pay back to the nation where it has had a presence for so many years.

nandan-nilekani

Google too, though not falling head over heels for the UID project, has evinced interest and put forth their claims for why they believe they will make a good suitor.

Talking about the expertise Google can bring to the table, Rao said, “At Google, we are good at software development, hosting data and language technologies. We run our product on more than eight regional languages in India. “If the project has a mobile dimension then also we can help. At Google, we have developed voice-based search capabilities,” Rao added.

Earlier, Microsoft had shown interest in the same project and Indian companies like TCS, Wipro and Infosys are in the run from the moment the project was announced.

So why are the tech giants falling all over themselves to get the UID project? Is it due to social service (Yahoo), a fit with expertise (Google?) or do they have some ulterior motives (think Microsoft!).

First, for the uninitiated, UID is the Unique Identification project of Indian Government, that would assign a 16 digit UID to every individual in the target group and also issue smart cards that may have biometric data like fingerprints and iris scan associated with it.

Ganeshan Vijay Srinivas, had written a post on trak.in earlier , about the potentials and pitfalls of UID and Arun has also written a post explaining why  the thinking that biometric smart cards will become ubiquitous in India in the near future is both simplistic and naive. I, myself, believe that UID has an important role to play in voting reforms and this can be easily done by combining the PDS/ration cards and election voter card under the same rubric.

So now that we have got some context on how important the UID project is, let us return to the central question as to why are the tech giants interested in a slice of the UID pie? Going back over the Yahoo and Google statements both stress their ability to handle large databases and host large data. Is interest in UID project a means to get a backdoor entry into some of the most sensitive and private data?

Given the fact that today ‘data is king’ and that Google and Yahoo both make tons of money from their access to private and proprietary data consisting of individuals and their online habits, can not UID be a pretext to get still more private data to improve their algorithms, their ad servings?

Granted that the government will try not to expose the private data to whoever is given the DB creation, updating and maintenance for the UID and that perhaps Google/Yahoo will only be involved in the development and not in actual usage of the DB; still they may be given access to parts of the data for testing/debugging/maintenance.  Even getting hands on part of the data will give them an unfair advantage and may potentially compromise national security.

google-dr-evil

I am concerned, because even Google, of ‘do no evil’ fame, has been accused of ulterior motives nowadays and respected web-pundits are worried that their tussle with NewsCorp/Apple may precipitate a war for the web and that Google too is not playing for the web, but is partisan.  The days when people thought Google had their best interests in mind, have sadly come to a pass. Given the ambition of Google to own worlds data (organise worlds data), these to me seem legitimate concerns.

Perhaps it would be better, if the UID project is given to an Indian company, even if the decision compromises on technological ability- in any of the foreign giants’ hands the easy access to sensitive data may lead to an unfair advantage at best and compromise national security at worst!

Maybe I am being myopic and maybe the Tech giants are interested in UID project for the moolah involved or even to give back to the country, as yahoo claims. Maybe I should stop watching too many conspiracy movies! Do let us know via comments, what you think are the reasons why the tech giants are so keen for the UID project and whether there is a cause for concern?

img src: india-server.com / ideachampions.com

  1. Vikrant says

    I have no doubts about the usefulness and importance of the UID project even though I have my reservations on the successful implementation of the same. With due respect to Nandan, its a mammoth task.

    The IT companies realize the potential of this data. Western countries have build system around this data for the last 30-40 years. In this IT age we might do it in a much smaller span.

    I would say this is the single most important project that will determine India’s position in the 21st century.

  2. chandan says

    these companies are like our politicians can’t be trusted period.

  3. Madhav Shivpuri says

    Like certain compliance regulations in Korea would it make a difference if Yahoo or Google hosted the servers with UID data in India, created an Indian corporate entity, hired Indian management/ staff etc. and abided by Indian Govt. specific rules? If that is what we are worried about, then that’s what we should talk about.

    The rules could also explicitly mention that neither the data nor the meta-data (trends, analysis, statistics, behaviour etc.) of the UID database can be used for the IT vendor’s purpose nor for anybody else. After that point, use intelligent process to encrypt the data, restrict access to limited people for sensitive data through user-id/password protection, management authentication etc.

    As a very simple Indian, I do not see any reason why Yahoo or Google should be entertained for this project. If they really want to repay the country, they can set up internet cafe’s or fund entrepreneurs or sponsor building roads :-)

    1. Sandy says

      Even for Indian companies I would suggest that the guidelines you, so rightly point out, stay in place. And ya, we have enough home-grown talent to do this project.
      From another very simple Indian.

  4. dhruva says

    lol :) … this is like anti outsourcing sentiment – but in reverse!!

    It is like Indians shying away to outsource their IT to a “remote company”
    ( remember how US gov projects have “sentiments” and “security concerns” attached to it … and hence they shy away to offshore those projects to India .. and typically to to likes of IBMs and Accentures)

    I think this is also a trend which will pick up soon in 10-20 years, when there are more IT projects in India, and just because of sentiments, “security concerns” – indian companies will get advantage. the same way US companies get those today.

    1. Sandy says

      Why wait for 10-20 years down the line; let the ball start rolling from today! Let this first big Indian govt IT projcet be given to a homegrown IT company, just like US govt projects, as you rightly point out, are given to Us companies based on ‘sentiments’!

  5. Sridhar says

    It is indeed a pure business-wise decision,direct or indirect inspite of the claims.
    Security concerns are valid. But remember the same companies already scan your entire mail box which has more personal info than the UID number. So if they use that data for ‘finetuned’ ads, it might not be too much of an interference than it is now.
    If the project is allocated purely on the basis of merit (tech), the causes for you
    r concern would be redundant.

    1. Sandy says

      Sridhar,
      The concerns are not just about national security or more availability of data; it is unauthorized use of data to profit from it in an advantaged way from other players because they have an underlying philosophy that the more the data, the better and the merrier(better for them…couched in terms of ‘better for the end users’) .

      Private and personal data, especially government data that would be collated by using UID, should remain secure and I believe is more sensitive than your email data. No doubts, even national security (a political factor) should be taken into account and not just technical or economic factors while making the decision.

  6. VJ says

    Your paranoia is justified sandy.!:P
    But at the same time, giving the projects to inexperienced Indian companies would result out in much worser effects in terms of maintenance and security.
    So the Govt should give it to the best guy and keep a trap that the information is held secure.

    1. Sandy says

      Yes VJ, both pre and post vigilance is required- in both selection of the companies involved and than an ongoing tapping of what access they are having to it and whether or not that data is being used in an unauthorized manner. Best does not always get selected; sometime practical factors (for eg. cost and economics) also have to be considered:-)

  7. Prats says

    Brilliant post…
    I was actually wondering with the same question… This post provides some relevant directions to the thought.

    1. Sandy says

      Thanks Prateek!

      I’m glad you are thinking along same lines and are wondering about the same issue. As they say great minds think alike:-)

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