Identity is easy to take for granted. Most of us have multiple legal documents or ID cards that prove we are who we say we are. But for many of the world's poorest citizens, the lack of legal identity is a barrier to participating in commerce and receiving services.
In India, an estimated 500 million people have no form of reliable identification. It's a problem the Indian government has set out to fix through a five-year project with a budget of US $430 million for this year. Starting six months ago with rural populations, the government has begun to create a biometric database that will eventually contain an unprecedented hundreds of millions of records. "We are talking about 10 times more than anything else that has been done before," says Anil Jain, an IEEE Fellow and distinguished professor at Michigan State University, who is an expert in biometrics.
From each volunteer participant, the government collects 10 fingerprints, 2 iris images, and a photo, and if the new data don't match any identity already enrolled, it assigns the person a unique 12-digit number. After that, a single fingerprint or iris scan should be all that's needed to verify the identity of any person. As of the end of March, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has registered more than 4 million people this way. The UIDAI hopes to eventually collect biometrics from a majority of the Indian population.
India has many federal and state programs to help people living in poverty, but today it's nearly impossible to be sure that funds and benefits are actually being delivered to those who need them. The ID project is an attempt to cut down on fraud and graft by increasing accountability and transparency. It's also meant to provide access to banking and the formal economy that many people lack.
Government biometrics programs have been tried before and failed, in India and elsewhere. The United Kingdom's universal ID program, for instance, got bogged down by both costs and privacy concerns and didn't offer tangible benefits to the average citizen. But the UIDAI's universal ID program, or Aadhaar, as it's called, seems to be off to a fast start. As soon as he was appointed in July 2009, chairman Nandan M. Nilekani set the ambitious goal of issuing the first million IDs within 12 to 18 months, and the UIDAI hit that mark by January 2011. Efficiency is not a strength of most government bureaucracies, so Nilekani looked to Silicon Valley for help.
A core group of Indian expats with Silicon Valley start-up experience began working on the problem, as unpaid volunteers. A three-bedroom flat in Bangalore served as the group's living and work space for six months. "We converted the living room into an office and started designing the core of the biometric system," says Salil Prabhakar, a biometrics expert who was recruited for the project. In the meantime, Nilekani's office prepared the paperwork and logistics to give the team official authority.
Prabhakar and his colleagues started by looking at best practices developed by other biometrics researchers. The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, the International Standards Organization, and the FBI "have done a lot of work to come up with good specifications [PDF]," says Prabhakar. "If UID happened 10 years ago, life would have been much harder for us." By using standard specifications, the Indian project has been able to use many existing devices and data interchange formats and avoid having to rely on a single private biometrics equipment vendor or proprietary format.