India to issue biometric ID cards
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).