“Massive Biometric Project Gives Millions of Indians an ID”

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The Story

“Massive Biometric Project Gives Millions of Indians an ID”
by Vince Beiser
Wired, September 2011

The Pitch

As co-founder of Infosys, the outsourcing colossus, billionaire Nandan Nilekani made the world recognize India. Now, he’s spearheading an unprecedented campaign to get recognition for all of his country’s 1.2 billion inhabitants.

Nilekani, whom Time magazine pegs as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, is heading up a massive government project to assign an official, biometrically-anchored identification number to every single person in India. Today, millions of Indians have no official ID of any kind – and if you can’t prove who you are, it’s hard to get others to give you anything. Without ID, you can’t access government benefits, nor tap into key services like banking and insurance. That’s why the government considers its newly- launched Unique Identification Authority – aka Aadhar – a crucial part of its goal of “inclusive growth”. Verifiable identity is a kind of key to prosperity.

A few other countries use biometrics as official ID verifiers, but India’s program is by far the biggest and most technologically complicated ever attempted. Nilekani has recruited ethnic Indian tech stars from around the world to help make it happen, including the co-founder of Snapfish and top engineers from Google, Yahoo and Intel. Dozens of them took leaves from their jobs to volunteer for the campaign.

Aadhar launched in September, with officials armed with custom-built kits containing iris and fingerprint scanners, digital cameras and laptops registering the first handfuls of rural villagers and Delhi slum dwellers. The multi-billion dollar campaign aims to register 600 million Indians by 2014. But it faces enormous technical and logistical challenges: reaching remote areas, convincing villagers who have never seen a computer to have their irises scanned, and transmitting and storing all that data over India’s patchy Internet infrastructure. With the Aadhar project in mind, the government is simultaneously investing billions to massively expand the nation’s broadband network.

Naturally, Aadhar also has privacy and civil liberties advocates up in arms. They’ve got legitimate concerns: among other things, the system will record each individuals’ caste and religion – both of which have historically made various Indian groups targets for
discrimination and violence. All of Aadhar’s information is slated be fed into a gargantuan national database dubbed NATGRID, whose users will include security agencies.

But Aadhar’s upside is also potentially enormous. It could cut down on the welfare fraud that costs India’s treasury billions every year, while opening access to government benefits for millions. And by allowing countless numbers access to the financial system, it could be a powerful tool to help lift millions out of poverty. India’s economy is already booming; will giving all its citizens access to that economy put it into overdrive?

Aadhar is of course big news in India, but has received startlingly little coverage in the US beyond a recent Wall Street Journal piece and glancing mentions in the Economist and a couple of other places. And Wired has never done much on Nilekani himself. What say I go to India, spend some time with him and ride along with the field teams as they march this campaign forward?

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