The Economist: Identity India

(Credit: Time)

(Credit: Time)

Part one in a series on India’s biometric Aadhaar program

Biometrics, the use of personal characteristics qua identification and authentication, have long been the stuff of science fiction and crime thrillers. But in India, an ambitious, nationwide attempt to document the demographic information, fingerprints and iris scans of its 1.2 billion residents aims to make it as commonplace as swiping a debit card; a considerable challenge considering millions of residents can’t even prove their identity, let alone apply for credit.

And yet the transformation is sorely needed. If successful, India will have built the technological infrastructure for a modern economy, as well as fundamentally transformed the outdated, inefficient and corrupt way government currently interacts with its residents.

At present, India’s governmental departments work in isolation, each maintaining a separate database. Over time, systematic corruption and mismanagement have bred bad data, false information and outright fraud. Those departments handling social support programs seem particularly abused; next year the Indian government will spend over $15 billion on a national food subsidy bill. Less than half of that sum is expected to reach its intended beneficiaries. In some states, two-thirds of the subsidized grain allocated for the poorest families are stolen and often sold on the black market.

Until now, government systems were not sophisticated enough to effectively address the problem. The new database will change that.

By assigning each resident a twelve-digit “aadhaar” (meaning foundation), electronic transfers can replace the inefficient and corrupt cash-and-goods distribution systems currently in place. Rigorous audit trails will ensure accountability in a system that sorely lacks it. Indians, for the first time, will be able to prove their identity in a matter of seconds.

Clearly, the potential social and economic benefits are enormous. But designing a biometric system capable of managing 1.2 billion people represents a daunting challenge. Governments have successfully implemented biometric systems before, but only in developed countries, and almost always based on fingerprint scans alone. Such a system isn’t possible in India, where millions of laborers have hands worn down from a life of manual labor.

And so the Indian government will settle these new technological frontiers. But any logistical difficulties will be but one problem among many. Questions regarding security, privacy and the ability of its people and institutions to handle such dramatic change still remain.

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Tarun Wadhwa