A ‘Best of’ Holiday Special of 2021: India’s Digital Identity System

A year-end replay of one of our favorite shows from 2021.

This episode is sponsored by Quantstamp, Nexo.io and KuCoin.

For the last day for 2021 and the end of a two-week break for “Money Reimagined,” we’re serving up the second of two of our favorite episodes from the past year.

Michael Casey’s pick was the episode from Sept. 15, not because that’s his birthday and not only because in that one he had the pleasure of meeting co-host Sheila Warren’s “chithi” (aunt), Dr. Usha Ramanathan. It was mainly because Ramanahan’s insights and those of the second guest, Marta Belcher, zeroed in on why maintaining data privacy is a matter of protecting our very humanity.

Ramanathan is a lawyer and an influential human rights activist in India. She has worked since 2009 to challenge India’s controversial digital identity program, Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric ID system. Belcher serves as general counsel of Protocol Labs, chairwoman of the Filecoin Foundation and special counsel to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Aadhaar has long been a lightning rod for the kind of privacy advocates who are often drawn to crypto and warn of the authoritarian threats from a government controlling such a large, centralized database of personal information. To that critique, the tech firms that built and now support India’s system have typically responded that they are overcoming the so-called “digital divide,” providing powerful, “programmable” IDs to the poor so that they can not only access the kind of services we take for granted but build new services on top of them.

Ramanathan turns that counter-argument on its head. She suggests backers of Aadhaar and other universal identity systems have fostered a myth that official IDs are necessary for citizens to participate in the economy when it’s perfectly possible to conceive of an effective economic system in which people prosper without compromising their privacy. Belcher then puts all this into the context of how our private data is being captured by centralized corporate internet platforms and whether or not decentralized solutions using cryptocurrencies and blockchains can free us from this.

It’s a great episode and well worth a lesson as we head into a new year in which the battle of the future of our digital economy is poised to intensify.

This episode was produced, edited and announced by Michele Musso. Our Holiday theme songs are from Joshua Spacht.