The Biggest Biometric Program in History

October 8, 2011 in Daily Bulletin

India is currently spending billions of rupees on a new Unique Identification System for its citizens. The system aims to give all Indians a unique 12 digit number that they can use to access government and private services. Wired went to India to find out more about the system and its progress. Some of the highlights of their extensive analysis include:

  • The government is recording both finger prints and retina scans. By itself finger prints would only have a 95% accuracy. By combining the two the system has a 99% accuracy. Moreover certain Indians have had their finger prints rubbed away by years of hard labour, and finger prints are inadequate for children whose prints are still developing. Iris scans face none of these drawbacks. The bigger challenge though may be human error while inputting data. One study places this error rate at 4.2%. At the moment identity cards are not being issued, instead an individual’s retinas or finger prints should serve as adequate identification.
  • Less than half of Indian households have a bank account, and hold their money in cash instead. This means that this money is not being invested in the country’s growth, nor is it earning interest for the individuals. Transferring that money into bank accounts would inject billions of dollars into the capital system. The designers of the new system hope that it will encourage Indians to open up bank accounts as their identities can now easily be verified. Systems are even being put into place to verify identity via mobile phone apps, allowing individuals to withdraw money from their accounts without ever having to visit a branch that might be miles away.
  • The creators of the system want to make it an open database that any company can use to validate somebody’s identity including schools, airlines and other institutions. But this openness comes with severe risks. As hard as the designers are working to make it a secure system with multiple state of the art safeguards they note that “there’s no lock in the world that can’t be broken.” But they also point out that credit card numbers are stolen all the time and those are still widely used.
  • The system is called “Aadhaar” which means foundation. It is run on India’s cell phone network and the government is massively expanding investments into the broadband system so that it is capable of dealing with the 100 million requests per day that the system is meant to eventually deal with.

Find out more about the logistical hurdles both technical and administrative as well as the implications for security and civil liberties over here.

Source: Wired