India: Re-learning privacy lessons

January 25, 2008 at 11:38 pm 1 comment

There is nothing like re-learning privacy lessons from personal experience. Recently, for a financial transaction I had to find out my Indian tax identifier and in the process discovered just how easy it was for almost anyone to get that information online.

Indian tax authorities are focussed on reducing tax evasion and issue a unique static national identifier- called the Permanent Account Number (PAN) – after verifying the person’s identity. Providing a PAN is compulsory in most financial transactions. It is also compulsory in such diverse things as getting a phone or paying a hotel bill of approx. US$ 660 or more.

This makes sense from the perspective of the Indian tax authorities in a situation where only 2% of the country’s population pays taxes. Pulling together a person’s profile based on a unique key across multiple databases is easy and automated. A visit from the tax man soon follows.

However, from a protection of privacy angle, that’s terrible. That’s why in countries like New Zealand, the Privacy Act (Principle 12) specifically controls the usage of unique identifiers.

It would therefore be logical that there would be great barriers in finding out a person’s PAN in India. On the contrary, the Indian authorities obligingly provide an online service that provides the PAN to anyone who knows the name and date of birth of a person. It also gives the tax office of the person and therefore a good idea of where the person lives.

The next steps? Indian tax authorities plan to introduce biometric PAN cards. Again, something that makes sense for the government but little for the people.

Coming soon is a compulsory national identity card in a smartcard format which will provide a further network of linked unique identifiers.

Privacy anyone?

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Entry filed under: ID_cards, personal_info, privacy.

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