Friday, March 29, 2013
India is building the world's largest biometric database
In an audacious technological mission, India is building a near foolproof database of personal biometric identities for nearly a billion people, something that has never been attempted anywhere in the world.
Poorer Indians who have no proof to offer of their existence will leapfrog into a national online system, another global first, where their identities can be validated anytime anywhere in a few seconds.
"India will outdo the world's biggest biometric databases including those of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US-VISIT visa programme," says Nandan Nilekani, the technology tycoon who heads the programme popularly called by its acronym UIDAI.
The United States' visa programme is a biometric database of 120 million.
In comparison, the UIDAI has already registered 200 million members, less than two years after the first enrolment.
By 2014 half of India's population will have an identity tagged to a random, unique 12-digit number.
As more and more Indians have their fingerprints taken, irises scanned and photographs clicked, UIDAI's chief technology architect Pramod Varma describes the database structure as a "Google-meets-Facebook" scale out.
With its internet-class open source backbone, the database will accommodate more than 12 billion fingerprints, 2.4 billion iris scans and 1.2 billion photographs.
Even more groundbreaking, once established and stored, a person's identity can easily be verified and authenticated using a cell phone, smart phone, tablet or any other device hooked to the internet.
The information is stored in a fortress-like data centre in Bangalore with a triple layer of security, and travels in highly encrypted packets.
Many of the radical ideas for UIDAI's technology have come from the talent the project has drawn from the Indian diaspora - tech entrepreneurs like Bala Parthasarathy of HP-acquired photo service, Snapfish and Silicon Valley returnees like Srikanth Nadhamuni, formerly with Intel.
Mr Nilekani himself co-founded and built the multi-billion dollar outsourcing company Infosys before being drafted by the government to head the project.
The programme has studied global best practices in biometric identity databases.
Unlike the United States' social security number, which is guessable and China's, which adds the date of birth, India's 12-digit identity number is randomly generated.
The United States' visa database does not factor in iris scans while India has included them to provide a greater degree of accuracy.
India's telecom revolution leapfrogged over several stages of technology in the past decade-and-a-half to great success. Similarly, the massive UIDAI will vault over older technologies.
"By starting on a clean slate and reconfiguring the structure, we have opened up a whole new set of possibilities," says Mr Nilekani.
The project will stay abreast of the latest in biometrics, cloud computing and connectivity.
Costs though have been kept low, first, by adopting an open policy in selecting devices and software and encouraging multiple private vendors.
Second, the project is technology-neutral, not locking in to any particular hardware or software.
If the technology architecture is unique, so is its accuracy in validating identities.
"The combination of 10-finger biometrics, two-iris scans and photograph establishes the identity of a person with over 99.5% accuracy," says Krishnakumar Natarajan, CEO of Bangalore-based tech outsourcing firm MindTree, which is one of the firms building applications for the project.
The best of the biometric databases in the world have a single de-duplication check, to ensure that every person is identified and tagged only once.
ID-ing the benefits
This month India's unique identity (UID) scheme will enroll its 200 millionth member, having
had almost none only a year ago (see article (http://www.economist.com/node/21542814)
By the end of this year, says Nandan Nilekani, a former software mogul who runs the project,
the tally could stand at 400m, a third of all Indians. The scheme is voluntary, but the poor are
visibly enthusiastic about it. Long lines wait patiently in the heat to have their fingerprints
and irises scanned and entered into what has swiftly become the world's largest biometric
For the poor, having a secure online identity alters their relationship with the modern world.
No more queueing for hours in a distant town and bribing officials with money you don't have
to obtain paperwork that won't be recognised if you move to another state looking for work. A
pilot project just begun in Jharkhand, an eastern state, will link the new identities to
individuals' bank accounts. Those to whom the government owes money will soon be able to
receive it electronically, either at a bank or at a village shop. Ghost labourers staffing public works
schemes, and any among India's 20m government employees, should turn into thin air.
The middlemen who steal billions should more easily be bypassed or caught.
That is just the start. Armed with the system, India will be able to rethink the nature of its
welfare state, cutting back on benefits in kind and market-distorting subsidies, and turning to
cash transfers paid directly into the bank accounts of the neediest. Hundreds of millions of the
poor must open bank accounts, which is all to the good, because it will bind them into the
modern economy. Care must be taken so mothers rather than feckless fathers control funds
for their children. But most poor people, including anyone who wants to move around, will be
better off with cash welfare paid in full. Vouchers for medical or education spending could
Companies—and their customers—stand to gain from the system too. Mr Nilekani talks of
India stealing a march on other countries if firms have an easy, secure way of identifying their
customers. Banks will be more likely to lend money to people they can trace. Mobile-phone
firms will extend credit. Insurers will offer lower rates, because they will know more about the
person they are covering. Medical records will become portable, as will school records.
Ordinary Indians will find it easier to buy and sell things online, as ordinary Chinese already
do. Just as Americas Global Positioning System, designed for aiming missiles, is now used by
everyone for civilian navigation and online maps, so might UID become the infrastructure for
India's commercial services.
They've got your number
India's scheme holds three lessons for other countries. One is that designing such a scheme as
a platform for government services, not security, keeps the costs down and boosts the
benefits. Another is to use the private sector. From the start, Mr Nilekani harnessed the
genius of Indians abroad, including a man who helped the New York Stock Exchange crunch its
numbers and one of the brains behind WebMD, an American health IT firm. Both public and
private actors (mostly tech firms that enroll participants and process data) are paid strictly by
results. The cost of enrolling each person is a little over 100 rupees ($2). Many other poor
countries could afford that.
And the third is that, alas, even a brilliant idea has enemies. India's stubborn home minister,
P. Chidambaram, is now blocking a cabinet decision to extend the UID's mandate, which is
needed for the roll-out to continue. Parliamentarians and activists have raised worries over
India's lack of strong privacy and data-protection laws; they also complain about the weak
legal basis for the scheme.
These complaints have some validity, but not enough to derail the scheme. For instance, India
plainly needs better data-protection laws, but even if the existing rules remained unchanged,
the threat to liberty would be dwarfed by the gains to welfare: to people who live ten to a
room, concerns about privacy sound outlandish. Some of the resistance is principled, but much
comes from the people who do well out of today's filthy system. Indian politics hinge on
patronage—the doling out of opportunities to rob one's countrymen. UID would make this
harder. That is why it faces such fierce opposition, and why it could transform India.