Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI)The UK government has made much of its new ‘verify’ site, part of the government as a platform approach. This site will allow UK citizens to verify their identity whenever they come into contact with any government department. It will be used for many purposes, ranging from tax returns to driving licences and vehicle excise duty. Pulling together information from multiple government departments about large numbers of individuals is not easy, and Liam Maxwell, the UK government’s CTO, is justifiably proud of progress.

But if this looks like a big project, spare a thought for those involved in the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the world’s biggest biometric identity project.

A massive programme, but a vital one

It’s not so much the scale of the project that’s so daunting, although it is huge. India has 1.2 billion residents, and all will eventually be included. For comparison, the US Visa database has just 120 million records. The computing and data storage capacity required for the new database is estimated to be ten times the size of Facebook.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is that this new biometric identity system does not pull together records from elsewhere. Vast numbers of the Indian population have no form of identity cards at present. UIDAI is registering these people from scratch, which means taking photographs, and scanning all ten fingerprints and both irises, then issuing a 12-digit unique identification number to each one.

In the developed world, we tend to take for granted being able to prove our identities. The vast majority of people have passports, driving licences or other ID cards. But in India, large numbers of people have no formal means of proving their identity, and many who live in the same village or town will share surnames. On a personal level, this means that some are unable to claim benefits to which they are entitled, while others are likely to receive benefits twice over. They can also struggle to prove their identity to get basic services like mobile phones.

But as well as the economic problems associated with individual lack of access to services, the government has other problems associated with the lack of identity cards. Corrupt and criminal operators are able to fabricate ‘ghost workers’ and benefit from government public works schemes, pocketing huge sums of money at the government’s expense, and then failing to build the infrastructure. No wonder the Planning Commission, part of the Government of India, decided such a major project would be worthwhile.

And to date, the results bear out the Commission’s optimism. Registration is voluntary, which in the UK or US would almost inevitably have led to low take-up and mutterings about a nanny state. But so far, in India, nearly half the population has already enrolled, and the database now boasts 700 million users. Estimates suggest that the whole population could be registered by the middle of 2015. The system is designed to expand with the population, and is also highly secure. The biometric data is stored in data centres with triple levels of security, and moved in encrypted packages.

A focus on the most needy

UIDAI has focused on the poorer communities, encouraging those without any ID or access to services to sign up. Access to the database means that members of these communities will now be able to receive services. They won’t need to carry cards or tokens, because the database contains their biometric data and they will therefore be able to prove their identity anytime, anywhere through the use of technology. All that will be required is a smartphone, tablet, or other connected device.

This is a paradigm shift which should lead to more equitable access to welfare and other benefits, among the poorest, most neediest parts of the population. But the platform, which is built on an open source base, using standard application programming interfaces and is vendor-neutral, is also available to third-party applications needing to verify identity. A number of applications have already been developed for the platform, including verification and payments systems.

Challenges still remain

Of course challenges still remain, not least the issue of connectivity, given that only just over one person in 100 has access to fixed broadband in India. There are also concerns about whether people will sign up. But the early signs are promising, with such large numbers already registered. There’s a good chance that most of the rest of the population will see the benefits, and sign up too, realising the potential of the system.

Image credit: Colour choices by Sudarshan

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