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The Uncertain Future of India's Plan to Biometrically Identify Everyone

by Prasad Krishna last modified Sep 08, 2014 05:31 AM
Last Sunday an 11-year-old boy in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southeast India, hung himself from a ceiling fan as his family slept.

Jessica Mckenzie's blog post was published in Techpresident on August 28, 2014. Sunil Abraham gave his inputs.


He was allegedly driven to this act after being denied an Aadhaar card—formally known as Unique Identification (UID)—which he was told he needed to attend school. The card is one arm of India's sprawling scheme to collect the biometric data, including fingerprints and iris scans, of its 1.2 billion citizens and residents, and is quickly becoming practically, if not legally, mandatory, for nearly every aspect of life, from getting married to buying cooking gas to opening a bank account. More than 630 million residents have already enrolled and received their unique 12-digit identification number.

Since its launch in 2010, people have raised a number of questions and concerns about Aadhaar, citing its effects on privacy rights, potential security flaws, and failures in functionality. India's poor, who were supposed to be the biggest beneficiaries of the program, are actually most at risk of being excluded from UID, and there is no evidence that biometric identification has curtailed corruption. The newly-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi lambasted the UID program as a candidate but in July did an about-face, calling for the enrollment process to be expedited and supporting a UID-linked social assistance program. In all likelihood, the world's largest experiment in biometric identification will continue.

There are still a number of unanswered questions about the future of the program. Although created in large part as a way of more efficiently and less corruptly dispersing government subsidies, last year the Supreme Court ruled that the Aadhaar card could not be made mandatory to receive government assistance. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) operates in a kind of legal limbo. Modi is said to have instructed his Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to resolve these legal problems.

Sorting out the legal issues is imperative if UID numbers are going to be linked to Modi's proposed financial inclusion program that aims to bring 75 million additional households into the country's banking system by 2018.

There is also the possibility that UID will be merged, absorbed or superseded by the National Population Register (NPR), yet another biometric identification system. The NPR, unlike Aadhaar, is mandatory for all residents. In addition to fingerprints and iris scans, NPR collects information on familial relationships, nationality, occupation and education level. There is a great deal of overlap between the two programs, which has been a source of conflict between government agencies in the past. The home ministry, for example, argues that government subsidies should be disbursed through NPR, not UID.

There is also speculation that UID could be picked up as part of Digital India, Modi's ambitious plan to modernize India by building national broadband infrastructure, ensuring universal mobile service access, creating e-government services, and establishing a “cradle-to-grave digital identity for every citizen of the country—unique, lifelong, online and authenticable [sic].”

In spite of UID's tenuous position and uncertain future, it has become “essential” in nearly every facet of life. The Delhi government is rolling out a suite of e-government services, starting with marriage registration, that will require a UID. Fishermen in Gujarat have been told they cannot go out to sea without biometric identification.

Then there is Kora Balakrishna, the 11-year-old who committed suicide after being denied an Aadhaar card because he has webbed fingers. His school headmaster had instructed him to get one as a prerequisite for study and, per one news outlet, a mid-day meal. An investigation into the incident has been ordered. Pravin Kumar, a local administrative official, said webbed fingers are not a legitimate reason for rejection from the program.

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