A ubiquitous identification system based on multiple biometrics has until now existed only in Hollywood movies. Today, India is attempting to make it a reality. Can the Indians pull it off?
The Unique Identification Authority of India's Aadhaar program, referred to as UID, will provide identity cards for that nation's 1.2 billion citizens. India's government now issues multiple special-purpose IDs, including a Permanent Account Number for income tax transactions, an Electors Photo Identity Card for voting, ration cards, health care cards, driver's licenses and passports. The UID will eventually replace all of those. The UID system will process hundreds of thousands of identity validation requests each second, against the world's largest database of individuals.
It's a huge project, with an estimated cost of $2.2 to $4.4 billion.
The UID will use multiple types of biometric data for identification, including retina scans, fingerprints for all 10 fingers, and multiple facial images. The system is so complex that no single company has all the required skills to develop it. A consortium of Accenture, MindTree (India), Daon (Ireland), and Neurotechnology (Lithuania) designed the biometric data capture, categorization, storage and retrieval processes.
The UID will yield significant benefits. Indians will need only one ID document for government services, banking and more. This is especially important for India's poor, many of whom can't access needed services because they can't prove their identity. Moreover, the government expects to save $4.3 billion annually with UID. By cross-referencing current systems and deduplicating databases, the government expects fraud to decline tremendously. The system will also reduce administrative costs associated with issuing multiple IDs and maintaining incompatible ID systems.
Critics, though, point to technological difficulties, compounded by social and environmental challenges. More than 70% of India's citizens live in villages with spotty electricity, and they may be wary of smart-card readers, say critics. And given India's 30% illiteracy rate, many people will be unable to read prompts. In addition, an environment that includes dust, large temperature swings and monsoons requires rugged and highly reliable equipment.
Other critics fear erosion of civil liberties. Misused, a national database could allow police or intelligence groups to discriminate against people by caste, religion or birthplace. According to The Wall Street Journal, "Numerous social studies show that knowledge of these identifiers adversely impacts delivery of services such as education and health care to disadvantaged citizens." Others worry that security will be inadequate. In November 2009, WikiLeaks published an internal working paper stating, "The UID Database will be susceptible to attacks and leaks at various levels."
Critics' arguments notwithstanding, IT organizations worldwide should monitor this impressive project. Begun in 2009, the 18-month initiative is a month ahead of schedule; pilot deployments begin this fall. If successful, the Aadhaar will have several byproducts. Other countries will likely adapt and adopt India's technology. In addition, the lesser-known companies contributing to the UID project will gain global recognition. And the concept of multiple-biomarker identification tools will be catapulted out of the movies and into everyday use. How long until your CEO demands them in your company's security systems?
Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.