Does the Data Security Risk of a Billion Indians Handing Over Biometric Information Outweigh the Benefits?

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Ghewar Ram, right, 55, and his wife Champa Devi, 54, display their Unique Identification (UID) cards outside their hut in Rajasthan, India on February 21, 2013. Aadhaar has given many of India's poorest the keys to participate in the formal economy. Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

The ominous changes at Ryan Sequeira’s workplace began in early 2015. First came the biometric machines, two on every floor of the New Delhi office where he worked as an architect for a government think tank. Then, about a month later, they did away with sign-in sheets—instead, employees had to clock in and out on the new machines by scanning their fingerprints and keying in their Aadhaar numbers.

This was all part of a radically ambitious plan set in motion in 2010, when the Indian government decided to enroll its 1.3 billion residents into a central database and issue unique identification numbers. Aadhaar, which means “foundation” in Hindi, was to form the backbone of social welfare programs by ensuring that beneficiaries could be properly identified, which in turn would help reduce fraudulent claims.

08_18_IndiaID_01 A villager performs an iris scan at an Aadhaar enrolment centre in Rajasthan, India on February 21, 2013. In a more ambitious version of programs that have slashed poverty in Brazil and Mexico, the Indian government began to use the identification database to make direct cash transfers to the poor and cut out fraudulent welfare claims. Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

So Aadhaar was rolled out, and Indians all across the country headed to enrollment centers and had their biometrics taken—a photograph, 10 fingerprints and two iris scans—then waited for their free identity cards to arrive in the mail. Enrollment continues today, and the world’s largest biometrics database is now nearly complete, with over 99 percent of Indian adults —nearly 1.16 billion people—registered as of July.

Seven years on, the 12-digit Aadhaar number continues to be used in social welfare, but it has pervaded many other areas of Indian life—from banking to baby bonuses, mortgages to marriage licenses. For government employees like Sequeira, Aadhaar now means having to log their hours using biometric-based machines. The benefits of a unique ID number may seem plentiful, but there may be just as many risks.

When the new machines arrived at his office, “people didn’t know their numbers,” Sequeira says. “So the company put up a large sheet next to the machines with everybody’s name and Aadhaar number to ‘help’ them.”

He recalls, “That was stupid—I was really irritated at the callousness with which they treated our data.”

Fraud and Leakage

The idea for Aadhaar was first floated in the early 2000s, under the premise that welfare systems would become more efficient (and save money) if residents had a unique personal identifier. At the time, the government was having difficulty identifying who should rightfully receive rations of food, fertilizer, cooking gas and other necessities. People were siphoning off rations—over a quarter of all issued—by making fraudulent claims. The root of the problem, the government said, was a lack of proper identification among its people. Fewer than half of all Indians have a birth certificate, few pay taxes and even fewer have a driver’s license or passport.

“There were two main drivers behind Aadhaar,” says Nandan Nilekani, who in 2009 helped set up the statutory board, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), responsible for rolling out Aadhaar. “One driver was inclusion, because many people in India didn’t have any form of an identity, especially poorer Indians. The second was that in the last 15 years, the government has been spending billions of dollars— at least $60 billion to $80 billion a year— on entitlements and benefits, but there was a lot of fraud and leakage. Therefore, we needed to have a robust, unique ID system to make sure the benefits went to the right person.”

Already, says Nilekani, Aadhaar has saved the government close to $7 billion. Roughly $2.5 billion of that came from plugging the leaky tap of cooking gas benefits. For a country that this year became one of the world’s largest importers of liquefied petroleum gas —after the government began offering in 2016 free connections to poor families to switch them from more polluting biomass-based fuels, like firewood and cow dung—that’s good news for India and the planet.