Building On Aadhaar

The project revealed that technology can solve many development challenges

Written by Nandan Nilekani | Published: June 7, 2017 12:10 am
aadhaar card, aadhaarpay, aadhar, uidai, bhim, uidai project, uid scheme, india news, modi govt There are over 400 million people who have linked their Aadhaar number to a bank. An Aadhaar law has been passed with advanced data protection and privacy features.

My work on India’s unique identification project — named Aadhaar — began in July, 2009. I was invited by then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to join the government and lead this project. At that point, I had worked for 28 years in Infosys. I had written about how getting every Indian a unique ID would be beneficial for the economy and society in my book Imagining India. Now I was being given a chance to actually implement the idea!

The Aadhaar project had two purposes. One was inclusion. Since the birth registration system was not robust enough, there were millions of people in the country with no birth certificates. So, a large number of people had no ID, or relied on a group ID like a ration card, or a voter ID that was only for adults. Having everyone on a single digital ID which could be verified anywhere in the country would be hugely useful for people as they migrated… or wanted to access their benefits or learn new skills. The second purpose was efficiency. As India built a welfare state with pensions, employment guarantees, scholarships, etc., it was deploying a large part of its budget to such social benefits. However, the lack of a proper ID system meant that in every welfare scheme, there were lots of ghost and duplicate beneficiaries…

The project faced several challenges. The first was how we establish uniqueness… This had to be done without most people having a “root” document like a birth certificate. It was decided that the only way to do so was by biometric deduplication. This meant taking a person’s biometric (in this case, the fingerprints of both hands and the iris prints of both eyes) and comparing them to the entire set to ensure a person was not in the database twice…

The second challenge was scale at speed. To cover a billion people, the system had to do more than one million enrolments a day. Moreover, it required at peak time more than 30,000 enrolment stations… Scale in the technology was achieved by using an internet class open source software-based architecture. Scale in enrolments was done by activating a whole network of registrars and enrolment agencies…

The third challenge was design for privacy and security. A lot of thought went into the design, to keep it minimalistic, to have secure encryption and the use of digital signatures.

The final and most important challenge was executing such a large project in a complex political and bureaucratic environment… The Aadhaar project had complete political support. The project was conceived, and implementation began, in the UPA government. The current government… has not only endorsed Aadhaar, it has accelerated its use and adoption. Today, over 1.1 billion Indian residents have an Aadhaar number. There are over 400 million people who have linked their Aadhaar number to a bank… An Aadhaar law has been passed with advanced data protection and privacy features…

The Aadhaar ID system has been designed like a platform of innovation, like the internet or GPS. Early signs are emerging of various innovative uses of the platform… This has been enabled by creating a set of layers above the JAM infrastructure, which allows presence-less and paperless applications.

A separate initiative of India’s national payment company, NPCI, has led to a advanced mobile-to-mobile payment platform called UPI (Unified Payment Interface) which will accelerate India’s move to a less cash economy…

This convinced me that several challenges in developing countries can be solved at speed and scale in a sustainable way, by using technology wisely, built in a way that society can take advantage. We call this building “societal platforms”. My wife Rohini and I are funding one such societal platform as a philanthropic initiative called EkStep to make learning opportunities widely available. Being selected for this very prestigious Nikkei Prize has reinvigorated our efforts to solve social challenges leveraging technology.

The writer is former chairman, Unique Identification Authority of India. This article is an edited excerpt from his acceptance speech of the Nikkei Prize 2017 on June 4

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  1. R
    Reader
    Nov 9, 2017 at 5:22 am
    The biometrics-based Aadhaar program is inherently flawed. Biometrics can be easily lifted by external means, there is no need to hack the system. High-resolution cameras can capture your fingerprints and iris information from a distance. Every eye hospital will have iris images of its patients. So another person can CLONE your fingerprints and iris images without your knowledge, and the same can be used for authentication. That is why advanced countries like the US, UK, etc. did not implement such a self-destructive biometrics-based system. If the biometric details of a person are COMPROMISED ONCE, then even a new Aadhaar card will not help the person concerned. This is NOT like blocking an ATM card and taking a new one.
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    1. R
      Reader
      Nov 9, 2017 at 5:22 am
      UK’s Biometric ID Database was dismantled. Why the United Kingdom's biometrics-linked National Identi-ty Card project to create a centralized register of sensitive information about residents similar to Aadhaar was scrapped in 2010?? The reasons were the massive threat posed to the privacy of people, the possibility of a surveillance state, the dangers of maintaining such a huge centralized repository of personal information and the purposes it could be used for, the dangers of such a centralized database being hacked, and the unreliability of such large-scale biometric verification processes. The Aadhaar program was designed in 2009 by mainly considering the 'Identi-ty Cards Act 2006' of UK, but the UK stopped that project in 2010, whereas India continued with the biometrics-based program. We must think why the United Kingdom abandoned their project and destroyed the data collected. (Google: 'Identi-ty Cards Act 2006' and 'Identi-ty Documents Act 2010' )
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      1. R
        Reader
        Sep 27, 2017 at 4:57 pm
        A centralized and inter-linked biometric database like Aadhaar will lead to profiling and self-censorship, endangering freedom. Personal data gathered under the Aadhaar program is prone to misuse and surveillance. A centralized and interlinked database can lead to commercial abuse. Aadhaar project has created a vulnerability to identi-ty fraud, even identi-ty theft. Easy harvesting of biometrics traits and publicly-available Aadhaar numbers increase the risk of impersonation, especially online and banking fraud. Centralized databases can be hacked. Biometrics can be cloned, copied and reused.
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        1. R
          Reader
          Oct 7, 2017 at 7:55 pm
          Biometrics can be cloned, copied and reused. Thus, BIOMETRICS CAN BE FAKED. High-resolution cameras can capture your fingerprints and iris information from a distance. Every eye hospital will have iris images of its patients. So another person can clone your fingerprints and iris images without your knowledge, and the same can be used for authentication. If the Aadhaar scheme is NOT STOPPED by the Supreme Court, the biometric features of Indians will soon be cloned, misused, and even traded.
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        2. R
          Reader
          Sep 27, 2017 at 4:56 pm
          UK’s Biometric ID Database was dismantled. Why the United Kingdom's biometrics-linked National Identi-ty Card project to create a centralized register of sensitive information about residents similar to Aadhaar was scrapped in 2010?? The reasons were the massive threat posed to the privacy of people, the possibility of a surveillance state, the dangers of maintaining such a huge centralized repository of personal information, and the purposes it could be used for, and the dangers of such a centralized database being hacked. The other reasons were the unreliability of such a large-scale biometric verification processes, and the ethics of using biometric identification.
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          1. R
            Reader
            Sep 27, 2017 at 4:56 pm
            The US Social Security Number (SSN) card has no biometric details, no photograph, no physical description and no birth date. All it does is confirm that a particular number has been issued to a particular name. Instead, a driving license or state ID card is used as an identification for adults. The US government does not collect the biometric details of its own citizens for issuing Social Security Number.
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            1. R
              Reader
              Oct 7, 2017 at 7:58 pm
              The US government DOES NOT collect the biometric details of its own citizens for the purpose of issuing Social Security Number. The US collects the fingerprints of only those citizens who are involved in any criminal activity (it has nothing to do with SSN), and the citizens of other countries who come to the US.
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