June 14, 2012 by Dan Swinhoe
Since its launch two years ago, the world’s biggest and most ambitious biometric database has gathered the information of 200 million people. But it’s not run by the US or China, but by the Indian Government.
India has transformed over the last decade. The country is richer and more connected, but much of this has bypassed the rural poor. This huge new database hopes to address that, providing an official identity and documentation to the millions of Indians who have no form of identification, essentially lacking any sort of state recognition. Though there are many different forms of identity; voters’ cards, passports, birth certificates, ration cards that enable the poor to buy cheap food and cooking fuel, driving licenses and PAN cards to name a few, many lack any of these.
Unicef estimates only 58% of children born in India are registered, and even then not all have birth certificates. Many villagers don’t see the need for them, and often would require a long trek to other villages. This lack of identity extends to bank accounts, with almost 40% of villagers not having accounts, often because they lack the proof needed to open one. There is also the cycle of documentation, where to get a license you need a ration card, to get a ration card you need a birth certificate, and so on.
It takes all of 10 minutes to key in a person’s details into a laptop before they have their picture taken on a webcam followed by an iris scan as part of the government’s “unique identity” (UID) scheme. In return they are given a random unique 12-digit number, which will enable access to state welfare, open bank accounts and improve job prospects. Once established and stored, a person’s identity can easily be verified and authenticated using a mobile or smart phone, tablet or any other device hooked to the internet.
The government hopes this will prevent corrupt officials from faking the names of people seeking welfare benefits or access to education – potentially saving billions of dollars. Paying money directly into bank accounts (such as the multi-billion dollar rural jobs guarantee scheme) will also reduce waste. Hopefully this system will also reduce the black market for fake documents, where a ration card can be purchased for up to 60,000 rupees ($1,095).
Run by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the scheme hopes to have 400 million people by 2014, eventually leading to the entire population being scanned. Progress has gone well, already the scheme has more than the US’ biometric visa program, which contains the details of ‘only’ 120 million.
Once the country’s 60,000 villages are all registered, people will be able to access their accounts remotely (80,000 bank branches cater to 5% of villages) through bank representatives using automated teller machines, without travelling for miles and losing out on a day’s work.
Adopting best practices on biometrics from across the globe, the government has been as smart as it can with the project. With so many people and high levels of migration to the city, de-duplication has been a worry, so the database goes through rigorous checks. Costs have been kept to a minimum, with each person enrolling costing the government 88 rupees ($1.59), which at $263m, last year’s budget for the program pales in comparison to the $60bn each year it spends on welfare programs. The government plans to keep abreast of the latest biometrics and cloud computing to keep the scheme up to date, and adopting an open policy in selecting devices and software and encouraging multiple private vendors. The scheme is also technology-neutral, not locking in to any particular hardware or software
Internet connectivity, and fingerprint degradation for laborers have been raised as potential issues, and the relatively high cost of iris scanners, compared to fingerprint readers, means that many organizations may not adopt both scanners. But so far early tests in villages have gone well, with many early scan-ees opening back accounts successfully.
Such a huge scheme is obviously going to draw flak from various sides. Opposition parties, as they would anywhere in the world, are bemoaning the costs, saying it could be spent elsewhere, and many skeptics are worried about their liberties and this data being either being hacked into, abused by those in power, or used for more authoritarian means. Clearly such a huge amount of detailed data can be worrying for people, and although it’s currently voluntary, many worry registering will become compulsory and the lack of proper data laws is also a concern. The government has promised information will be safe, stored in a fortress-like data center in Bangalore with a triple layer of security, and travel in highly encrypted packets. Those worried about freedom are being reassured that the data will not be used for any other purposes.
The biggest critics of all have been The Standing Committee for Finance, who in a 48-page report from 53 parliamentarians, claimed the project had ‘no clarity of purpose’ and ‘being implemented in a directionless way with a lot of confusion.’
Bipartisan politics are an obstacle that won’t go away. But compared to creating a huge biometrics database creating decent data laws should be easy. Educating and convincing the poor the government is trying help that this will really help them and not be abused by the rich may be the biggest challenge of all. The UID scheme won’t fix all the problems of a huge population and sketchy infrastructure and connectivity in rural areas bring. But it has brought India closer to bringing all its citizens into the 21st Century.