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India to issue biometric ID cards

July 19, 2009

According to The Times (and many other sources), this week, India is to create a central database, a unique identification number and biometric ID cards for all of its citizens. The scheme will be run by the newly-created Unique Identification Authority and cost an estimated £3 Billion (or around $5 Billion US).

As in Brazil, there is a felt need for such a system because of the proliferation of IDs and the dangers of anonymity and invisibility in a society where this can be a life or death issue. None of this, of course, means that the particular measures chosen will achieve their aims or will not create other problems. The Times with predictable journalistic cliche, calls this the largest Big Brother scheme in the world and the leader of the project is talking about a “ubiquitous online database” . However, it is rather difficult to see how it will be anything like that when most of India’s chaotic multi-level bureaucracy, especially at local level, still ‘works’ on the basis of paper-based filing systems.

There are suggestions too that this has purposes in crime-fighting and anti-terrorism, although the Indian government website on the scheme makes no such claims (which have in any case been discredited in the discussion about the proposed UK National Identity Register and ID card). It instead focuses on how ‘the Unique ID will be helpful in reducing identity related fraud and allow only targeted people to get the benefits from the government’ (MIT website).

Discussions on listservs has also served to question claims made in The Times article. The paper talks about ‘1.2 Billion’ people being enrolled, but in fact the scheme would only cover over-18s, which would be less than 2/3 of that number It also seems unclear exactly how the cards will be biometric. If it is just a photograph and fingerprint, this would be much the same as the Brazilian scheme. Of course the UK had more ambitious plans, but these were scrapped due to cost and reliability concerns.

Japan, where I am now, has instituted its own central database, and unique ID number, juki-net, and I will be talking to one of the people responsible for dealing with the technology that enables local governments to use the system this coming week…

(Thanks to John Bredehoft for pointing out the problem with the figures).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2009 3:08 pm

    (Disclosure: I am employed in the biometric industry.)

    The reason for my interest in the range of participants in the proposed program wasn’t necessarily because of the resulting database size – after all, what’s a few hundred million records between friends? – but because of the age composition of the database. If the government of India (or any government) had proposed to fingerprint five-year-olds, for example, then this could result in a future need to compare a child fingerprint to an adult one. If such comparisons are taking place in a deployed fingerprint system, I’m not aware of it. I personally am not familiar with any studies that have been done on changes (or lack thereof) of fingerprints as someone grows up; while the ridge structure itself does not change, are there changes in relative distances between fingerprint details? Again, there probably HAVE been studies on this, but I’m just not aware of them. (Perhaps some other commenter can reference such a study?)

    Of course, I’m aware that others may be interested in child fingerprint for civil libertarian reasons, rather than just technical reasons…

  2. David permalink
    July 20, 2009 7:48 am

    Thanks, John. It’s an interesting issue for both technical and social reasons. Of course there are very good moral reasons for registering the identity children – as well as very particular moral problems – but as you say, technical difficulties in doing it by this method. And BTW, I am in no way opposed to ID cards or databases in some a priori way. I am simply interested in the way such things are presented, and the ways in which government and industry go about persuading people that it is in their interest to have them. In Brazil, where I was earlier this year, I encountered very little opposition to the new ID card scheme there – on the contrary, ordinary people seemed to want to have their identity registered in some way. In fact, such registration of identity is considered to be a ‘right’ by the United Nations.

    My problem with the UK system is with: firstly, the exaggerated claims that have been made for it (which are now being gradually retracted); secondly, the escalating costs; and thirdly, the maximalist mentality which seems to think that everything should be linked up and all personal information is essentially the property of the state. I’d rather have a system driven by clearly justified purposes with privacy and personal empowerment as the foundations, rather than what any particular government happens to want. Of course the other problem with the UK is that we are operating in a situation in which the lack of a formal written constitution means that any such scheme has no really solid foundation in terms of what the relationship between the state and its people is supposed to be…

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