Biometrics for a Billion

India's Digital Identity Project Reaches a Milestone


In some ways, India has leapfrogged much of the world with its citizen identification programme, Aadhaar. The country has gone from being relatively disorganised when it comes to tracking and registering its inhabitants, to collecting and storing biometric data for more than 1 billion people in a few years.

All residents of India are issued a unique identification number through the Aadhaar system — a 12-digit code that's backed by 10 fingerprints and two iris scans. Two hands, two eyes and a photograph are used for confirmation in secure transactions. The project has also been a useful method of counting the segment of society that has so far been excluded from mainstream India owing to complexities of bureaucracy.

The World Bank's chief economist, Paul Romer, recently called Aadhaar "the most sophisticated ID programme in the world".

The Unique Identification Authority of India was initially set up by the country's government in January 2009, as an attached office of the Planning Commission. In July 2016, under the provisions of the Aadhaar Act 2016, it was established as a statutory authority. In a few years the Indian government issued identification numbers covering 99 percent of the country's population aged over 18. Both citizens and non-citizens receive an Aadhaar number.

At the beginning of March 2017, more than 1.12 billion Aadhaar numbers had been issued. To put this in perspective, about 15 percent of the world's population is now in the database. India isn't just learning about big data, it's living it. When the Unique Identification Authority of India was formed, biometric identification methods had moved well beyond the pages of spy novels and police work to the mainstream. This is the advantage of starting a system later in technology cycles. In fact, biometrics was about to become a standard feature in flagship smartphones.

The Indian government is promoting the use of the Aadhaar identification programme for common transactions. The move is an effort to be the most digitised country in the world and to track economic transactions. The vast majority of commercial payments in India are still cash-based, meaning much of the economy is invisible.

Last month, there was a reported data breach using the Aadhaar computer system. Identification information was misused to perform several hundred unauthorised bank transactions. The breach appears to be isolated and is still being investigated, but the government had claimed that the data was not vulnerable.

Many people in India, despite being in the system, still resist the notion. But, for many government payments and transactions, they are required to register. That's really the secret to the programme's success. For example, Aadhaar numbers will become a requirement for purchasing train tickets from 1 April 2017. The unique code will also qualify as a valid form of identification while availing various government services, such as LPG connections, benefits under pension schemes and more. An Aadhaar number is mandatory to purchase a SIM card or to open a bank account. The requirement assures that discounts are not being abused and also serves security purposes, preventing impersonation.

Perhaps more than any other population, Indian residents know about biometrics. However, the technology is still met with a level of discomfort. Its long-term development will make a good first-hand study for the future of transactions. Other countries including several with highly sophisticated technical economies have been evaluating the Aadhaar programme. It's been a point of pride for India: the country quickly scaled up an intricate system to cover most of the subcontinent. But some are wondering if this is a case of data collection going too far.

This entry was posted on March 20th, 2017 and is filed under Services. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Posted By Raghu Gopal On March 20th, 2017


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