India Building World’s Largest Biometric Database

May 31, 2012 - 

India’s identification policy will amass the world’s largest biometric database. The plan’s stated objectives are to improve social welfare by providing identity numbers to each of the country’s $1.2 billion people.

The plan is intended to help integrate people into the economy by attaching biometric-linked ID numbers to bank accounts and streamlining the delivery of government services. India’s Unique ID (UID) program and National Population Register (NPR) programs are working in tandem to collect biometric data, with a goal of issuing unique identification numbers for every citizen by June 2013.

Upon enrollment, individuals are issued 12-digit unique ID numbers on chip-based identity cards. For residents who lack the necessary paperwork to obtain certain kinds of employment or government services, there’s strong incentive to get a unique ID. While the UID program is voluntary, enrollment in the NPR program is mandatory for all citizens.

The NPR program’s stated objectives are to streamline the delivery of government services such as welfare or subsidies, prevent identity fraud, and facilitate economic development.

The UID program is administered by the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI), an executive body created to oversee the issuance of unique ID numbers for the stated purpose of facilitating access to benefits and services.

To date, some 170 million individuals have been registered in the UID program. To perform the data collection, the UIDAI has signed memoranda of understanding (MOU) with numerous partners, including states, union territories and 25 financial institutions, to act as registrars for implementing the scheme.

The registrars, in turn, contract with tech firms such as Wipro, a company that has issued at least six million UID numbers in Maharashtra. Agents gather the data by going from village to village, registering as many individuals as possible each day. In addition to demographic information, biometric information of individuals is collected with iris scanners, fingerprint scanners, and face cameras that employ facial recognition technology. Morpho, a technology company, is a primary UID contractor that develops and maintains systems to cross check new applications by sifting through the biometrics database and prevent actual or fraudulent duplication.

The UID program is known as Aadhar, which also refers to the unique 12-digit number citizens are issued upon enrollment. According to reports, a pilot program will link Aadhar with financial and banking services in 50 districts in a move that the UIDAI says will “change the financial landscape of the country.”

Proponents of India’s identification program have championed the UID program as a tool that can aid the low-income segment of India’s population by streamlining the delivery of public services and creating a system that is more inclusive to the poor. The program has been praised due to its potential to increase the demographic datasets utilized by the central government to better profile the population for census purposes. As with most modern nations, better census data means the potential creation and delivery of better government services. Census data affects how funding is allocated to communities for developmental improvements, public health, education and transportation.

The policy however does face criticism from Delhi-based non-governmental organizations, who have roundly condemned the UID program as an affront to civil liberties that violates Indian citizens’ basic constitutional rights to privacy.

India’s parliament also rejected a bill associated with UID based on concerns about security, data theft, and the fact that that a national data protection law has yet to be enacted. Lawmakers wrote in a report that: “The collection of biometric information and its linkage with personal information of individuals without statutory amendment appears to be beyond the scope of subordinate legislation.”

Lawmakers also seized on the risk, uncertainty, and potential for privacy violations that would be ushered in under the massive scheme: “Considering the huge database size and possibility of misuse of information, enactment of a national data protection law, which is at a draft stage, is a prerequisite for any law that deals with large scale collection of information from individuals and its linkages across separate database. The committee is afraid that the scheme may wind up being dependent on private agencies.”

Despite these concerns, the UID program continues, while at the same time, biometric data collection for the national registry moves ahead on a separate track. Mandatory registration for all citizens in the national registry went into effect with the 2004 amendment of the Citizenship Act, allowing the central government to compulsorily register every citizen of India and issue national identity cards. The result is that India will build the world’s largest biometric database, providing IT firms and consultancies with unequaled opportunity to grow their respective businesses.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.