Identity Theatre on the Welfare Stage: A Tale of Biometrics and Bias in India

ECE Seminar: Identity Theatre on the Welfare Stage: A Tale of Biometrics and Bias in India

Starts at: September 11, 2014 4:30 PM

Ends at: 6:00 PM

Location: Scaife Hall 125

Speaker: Malavika Jayaram

Affiliation: Harvard University

Refreshments provided: Yes


Big Data doesn’t get much bigger than India’s Unique Identity project. The world’s largest biometric database - with almost 600 million enrolled - promises inclusion, legitimacy and visibility. Although the project is aimed at addressing very real structural and political failures that serve as barriers to accessing benefits and services from the state, it raises several concerns. Its role in normalizing the ubiquity of biometric identification, its implementation against the backdrop of a creeping surveillance society (as one of many schemes designed to track and surveil the Indian population in a relative legal vacuum), and the risks of disproportionate impact on marginalized communities are all reasons for caution. The export of technologies of control - once they have been up-scaled and tested on a massive population that has little agency and limited ability to withhold consent - transforms this project from a site of local activism to one with global repercussions. Malavika will use this project to highlight some of the policy issues with national IDs in the developing world, and the varied ways in which this scheme is already being subverted, disrupted and repurposed, often with tragicomic consequences.


Malavika is a Fellow at Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, working on privacy, identity, data ethics and free expression. She is also a Fellow at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore and the author of the India chapter of the Data Protection & Privacy volume in the ‘Getting the Deal Done’ series, Malavika is one of 10 Indian lawyers in The International Who's Who of Internet e-Commerce & Data Protection Lawyers directory. In August 2013, she was voted one of India’s leading lawyers - one of only 8 women featured in the “40 under 45” survey conducted by Law Business Research, London. In a different life, she practiced law in London and India, with Allen & Overy in the Communications, Media & Technology group, as VP and Technology Counsel at Citigroup and as a partner at Jayaram & Jayaram. She is completing a PhD on the evolution of the privacy jurisprudence and discourse in India, using the biometric ID project as a site for critical analysis. She is also running a project on data ethics in development, and the challenges of evidence based policy making in India. As a Global Internet Policy Fellow with the Institute for Technology and Society, Rio de Janeiro, she will be conducting comparative Brazil-India research on identity programs and biometrics.