Identifying a Billion Indians
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
In a small village north-west of Bangalore, peasants queue for identities. Each man fills in a form with his name and rough date of birth, or gets someone who can read to do it for him. He places his fingertips on one scanner and stares at another. A photograph of his face is snapped. These images are uploaded to a computer. Within a few weeks he will have an identity number.
The Indian government is trying to give all 1.2 billion Indians something like an American Social Security number, but more secure. Because each “universal identity number” (UID) will be tied to biometric markers, it will prove beyond reasonable doubt that anyone who has one is who he says he is. In a country where hundreds of millions of people lack documents, addresses or even surnames, this will be rather useful. It should also boost a wide range of businesses.
So far the process has gone smoothly. More than 1m people have been enrolled since October, and the pace is accelerating. It needs to: 1m is less than 0.1% of the population. The scheme presents difficulties both for the people in charge, many of whom were recruited from software firms, and for the private contractors who are doing much of the work. How do you ensure that the data are accurate? How do you build a robust database containing biometric information about more people than any other? How do you deal with peasants whose fingerprints are unreadable after years of manual work? (Adding moisture to their fingertips helps.)