India’s Aadhar is often compared to the Social Security Number system of the United States. Most of these comparisons are about how they are in use today.
The US SSN is necessary for you to draw a salary, open a bank account, it’s linked to your credit history, it’s linked to your taxes, tax waivers and a lot more. In India, it’s a similar set of linkages that is up for question at the Supreme court today.
But how did the SSN come into being in the first place?
The story is fascinating. NPR’s Planet Money podcast has an excellent episode on the Social Security Number:
A few things that jumped out:
The Social Security Number came into play in 1935, with the Social Security Act getting signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt. The original aim of the number was to track workers’ earnings through their career, such that they could receive appropriate social security benefits on retirement.
Europe said that it couldn’t be done. (Europe’s current extreme stances on data protection today are eerily reflective of similar sentiments)
The Americans decided to not use a fingerprint, because fingerprints had a criminal connotation, and the optics of hauling all workers in to get their fingerprints taken were… bad, to say the least.
The Number 666 is never used in the SSN!
Initially, people did not fully understand the need for secrecy with the SSN. Giant printed versions of social security cards, with the numbers intact, would be used in TV shows.
The SSN’s ambit gets expanded, starting 1943. The US Federal government started telling its other departments to not invent a new ID for any purpose, but use the SSN instead.
- In 1962, it starts getting used for people to pay taxes.
- Around the same time, it starts getting used for enrollment into Medicaid, a large healthcare programme.
- In 1977, it’s used for distributing food stamps, or food subsidy.
- In parallel, the number is being used by the Federal government and the military as personnel ID numbers.
- In 1982, for loans from the federal government… and the list goes on. Driving license, Marriage registration, everywhere. And eventually, credit ratings.
The Social Security Administation did not have the legal authority to stop people from using the number for other purposes.
…and then these numbers got hacked.
History, it seems, often repeats itself.