Science 5 min read

Data is Currency: India's Aadhaar Biometric Registry

Sebestyen Balint |

Sebestyen Balint |

Since the Aadhaar biometric registry was proposed in late 2008 and implemented in 2009, over 1.1 billion Indians have given their biometrics to the government in exchange for an ID card. The system has raised concerns since its inception.

In 2010, the Indian government began its first biometric census and the country’s 15th census overall.

Indian President Pratibha Patil was the first citizen counted, urging that, “everyone must participate and make it successful.”

Poorer Indians, who formerly had no recognizable imprint on the world’s data ocean, were given a number and thereby thrust into a new national, digital registry that made them visible blips on the government radar.

Aadhaar, which means ‘foundation’ in Hindi, is a randomized 12-digit code linked to a citizen’s biometrics and personal data.

The census and the Aadhaar registry worked hand-in-hand, and now 86% of all Indians hold an Aadhaar ID. Nearly 100% of citizens over 18 years old have the card.

99.5% of adults in India have a biometric data registration card.Click To Tweet

Recently, however, the Indian government began requiring an Aadhaar ID in order to collect on social welfare programs.

For example, a citizen must be able to prove their biometric identity to collect on a food or fuel subsidy.

In addition, you must have an Aadhaar ID to open a bank account.

While the government argues that this will ease access to social welfare and end entrenched corruption, many argue that the system is not foolproof and that it is a massive-scale privacy infringement.

Arguments for the Biometric Census and Aadhaar ID

  • it’s an impressive, cost-efficient census system. For example, the U.S. census of 300 million people will cost $14.7 billion USD, whereas the Indian census and biometric registration of 1.2 billion people only cost $1.3 billion dollars.
  • India’s biometric database is bigger, safer, and more efficient than other countries, including the U.S.’s FBI database.
  • The Indian Government argues that the Aadhaar ID will make access to social welfare and government subsidy easier and dissuade corruption.
  • The Aadhaar ID can help to strengthen mobile financial platforms as the country pushes for demonetization.
  • The direct payment of welfare subsidies to citizens has saved the Indian government billions of dollars annually.
A young boy holding his Aadhaar card pictured in a company website announcement | courtesy of Aadhaar

Arguments Against the Aadhaar Biometric Registry

  • India’s legal framework for information security is inadequate and disjointed.
  • Citizens whose biometrics are damaged, mismanaged, stolen or incorrectly taken are refused their rightful benefits, even though the government asserts that this does not happen.
  • According to a 2016 World Bank report, “There are no regulations in India on safeguards over and procedures for the collection, processing, storage, retention, access, disclosure, destruction, and anonymization of sensitive personal information by any service provider.”
  • Experts doubt Aadhaar network integrity and cite a lack of clarity surrounding appropriate data sharing and storage.
  • Citizens feel that their privacy is completely invaded. For example, Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, told Reuters, “Imagine a situation where the police (are) secretly capturing the iris data of protesters and then identifying them through their biometric records.”
  • The Indian administration is thought of as a far-right, strongly nationalist organization that could use the Aadhaar data to discriminate against certain individuals.
  • High-level corruption will easily be able to adapt to the new system.

What the Indian Courts Think

The Indian judicial system, throughout this biometric evolution, has predominantly sided with critics of the Indian Modi administration.

In October 2015, when the Modi administration tried to make Aadhaar registration mandatory, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that it must remain voluntary.

The Caste System in the Face of Biometrics

Even though the caste system is now illegal in India, there is a strong respect for the old system among Hindu-nationalist middle and upper-class Indians.

Dibyesh Anand, Professor and Asian politics specialist at the University of Westminster, argues that the Hindu-nationalist Modi administration will likely use the Aadhaar registry to support Hindu-nationalist organizations that conduct much of terror-related killings that take place in India (something that the Aadhaar registry is supposed to diminish).

Similar Situations in the U.S.

We have a similar issue here in the U.S. where we voluntarily concede sensitive information for access to certain services.

The difference is that in the U.S., access to these services (Facebook, e-Commerce, etc.) is not vital.

In India, however, these services are required in order to access school, medical care and other vital aspects of life.

Where There’s Big Data, There are Big Data Firms

How do giants like Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft play into this?

India has enormous potential with a huge population of young people coming online. In some cases, registering in this system is a must just to get a cell phone.

How could companies potentially leverage this registry for advertising/other purposes?

Microsoft has already jumped in, launching Skype with Aadhaar seeding to allow access to bank accounts via webcam.

Microsoft asserts that using their cloud will cut down on costs and difficulties with using the Aadhaar system for banking.

But in a world where data is currency, Microsoft just hit the motherload.

Already, in September of last year, Google was angling for ways to get involved in the Aadhaar registry. Already providing the Aadhaar mobile app via Google Play, Google is suggesting that it front-end a public WiFi program.

Google is also looking to get involved with the Indian UPI (Unified Payments Interface).

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Comments (2)
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  1. Mukesh Kamath May 12 at 6:04 pm GMT

    Awesome coverage… You’ve hit multiple nails on their head. Crisp and to the point. You are being sanguine about Indian security and privacy issues and we too feel the same. Privacy is something we trade for access or benefits. Esp if we feel comfortable or trust the other party with our information.

    • Brett Forsberg May 12 at 9:10 pm GMT

      We’re really glad you appreciated the coverage of the Aadhaar registry/biometric census. To be honest, we just recently became familiar with the situation and the implications stunned us. Something this important will surely struggle to find balance between social benefits and abuses of privacy. We sincerely hope that Aadhaar becomes an effective, beneficial example of what large-scale government registries can be.

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