When you think of cutting-edge innovation, a massive bureaucracy might be the last thing that comes to mind. But in India, a massive experiment is underway to take a technology that was once a hallmark of science fiction and apply it to solving the nation’s greatest challenges. A small group of entrepreneurs within the government have set out to identify to every one of their 1.2 billion residents by using biometric technologies, such as iris scans and fingerprints.
In the next few years, each man, woman and child will receive an “Aadhaar” (meaning: foundation) 12-digit unique identification number. For the poor in India, this would end a vicious cycle where a person cannot prove who they are, and thus they are denied what they are supposed to receive. Now, using the features of the body, technology can identify someone in a matter of seconds. There will no longer be a need for passports, driver licenses, or other old school paper based identification.
Biometric identification has been around for decades, but it has never been used on such a large scale. The technology must withstand India’s extreme weather, difficult geography, and multiple separatist movements. Large portions of the country lack reliable electricity, let alone an Internet connection. Developers must find a way to ensure high quality information across tens of thousands of enrollment centers. If these challenges can be overcome, there is a major opportunity to modernize and reshape the nation, and to set a precedent for the rest of the world.
One area in desperate need of disruption is the delivery of government services. At present, India’s departments each work in isolation, maintaining a separate database. Over time, systematic corruption and mismanagement have bred bad data, false information and outright fraud. Poor laborers and migrant workers, in particular, are forced to travel far from their homes to collect their wages and benefits, having to dole out bribes to predatory middlemen along the way. A study by investment group CLSA estimated that, nationwide, of the $250 billion in subsidy and social spending on select programs over the next five years, over 40% will never make it to its intended target.
Here, various advancing technologies are converging to offer a new way forward. Aadhaar numbers can serve as the key to bringing together various databases to clean out records. Electronic transfers can replace the inefficient and corrupt cash-and-goods distribution systems currently in place. Indians, for the first time, will be able to prove their identity in a matter of seconds with biometric scanners, regardless of location. With close to a billion mobile phones in the nation, these can serve as a gateway for India’s masses into the financial system.
The same systems used for transferring benefits can be used to create an economy based off of mobile transactions. Two villagers could send each other money with little more than their identity numbers and an Internet connection. With an open platform, developers are inviting entrepreneurs to come build their own applications and uses to tackle the country’s multitude of data issues. For example, health insurance in India is rare because it is hard to locate and verify a person’s records.
The goal is to enroll 600 million Indians in four years. Many have expressed skepticism that they will reach their target, pointing to the numerous examples of costly, failed national identification programs around the world. Since the first enrollments in September 2010, the government has issued more than 200 million people an Aadhaar number – which is a population larger than any European nation.
In the process, India has industrialized the biometric space. Economies of scale have already made a drastic impact on the price of the technology. RS Sharma, Director General of the Unique Identification Authority of India has stated that the agency has been able to collect each resident’s information for around $3, while it reportedly cost the UK more than $150 per person in their failed exercises just a few years ago. For most of the developing world, this would be affordable to implement.
Ultimately, the success of the program is not about the performance of technology, but the efforts of the people behind it. The same systems that can bring accountability and transparency can be used for mass-surveillance and digitized discrimination. Privacy laws are still outdated and ineffective. With so many different government agencies now able to store and access personal information, the potential for abuse looms large. Biometric identification has long been used for security purposes - now India will show the world how it can also be used to offer hundreds of millions their greatest chance at inclusion and a prosperous life.