IT for ID: India’s Biometrics Megaproject

Photo Nandan Nilekani / Head of the Unique Identification Authority of India / January 31st, 2013

Launched in 2009, the Unique Identification Authority of India is a megaproject mixing the latest information technologies and basic development requirements. Its objective is both simple and ambitious: to provide a unique identity number to all residents in the country. Helping the poorest to access the modern economy and society is an emergency and a key to economic and social development. It is also a challenge, and not only a technical one.

ParisTech Review – Let us start with the technical features of the project. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) is collecting data. Which ones, and how do you collect them?

Nandan Nilekani –
First, the UIDAI captures basic biometric identifiers: all ten fingerprints, iris scans and photograph of the resident, as per the standards laid down by the Biometrics Standards Committee report. The agency collects as well minimal demographic data: name, age, gender and address. The recommendations of the Demographic Data Standards and Verification procedures committee have been adopted in this regard.

The UIDAI does not make the Aadhaar number mandatory based on the idea that the residents find a personal benefit in registering. However, agencies of the government can make it mandatory in their respective domains over time. To collect the data we are working on a territorial basis, with enrolment centers. The UIDAI works with its partners called registrars to collect the data. It does not enroll the residents itself. The registrars can be local sub-national governments, the Registrar General of India or public sector banks. The resident has to come to an enrolment center, where his or her biometric data will be collected through fingerprint readers, iris scanners and a camera.

But this is just the technical part. It is more complex to collect accurate demographic data. It can be provided by giving existing identity documents which are verified by a laid down procedure. A list of documents is available. But many residents in India do not have any formal documents to prove their identity, and this is precisely one of the reasons why the government decided to set up this program – since without any ID, how can you prove who you are? To address the problem of lack of any identity documents, the UIDAI has come up with a concept of an “introducer” – an authorized person who can identify and introduce a person with no documents so that the person can get an Aadhaar number. A detailed procedure for introducers has also been laid down. The data collected is sent to the UIDAI central database where it is de-duplicated. Once the collection has been processed, the UIDAI does not provide a smart card or a chip, but a number. It is communicated in the form of a letter/card that the resident can retain. The Aadhaar letter also includes the photo, name, address and age of the resident. People can get a reprint if they lose their letter or forget their number.

What is the scope of the project?

The Aadhaar number is not a citizenship card and does not establish citizenship. It is only an identity number for residents.. The mandate of the UIDAI is to cover 600 million residents by 2014. The UIDAI was established in 2009 and the first number was issued in September 2010. In December 2012, 280 million residents had been enrolled and 240 million Aadhaar numbers had been issued. A specific policy and procedure has been designed for updating the demographic and biometric data laid down by the agency. This service will be rolled out shortly so that residents can update their information.

There is a strong incentive for people to join the project: for someone who has no ID, the Aadhaar number will be a key for accessing services. The Aadhaar number provides the basic proof of identity. For millions of residents who have no formal proof of identity, this would be the primary motivation. This number will be used by banks ; with this number, it will be easy to open a bank account, perform a cash withdrawal, etc. It will be used by the social security system, the welfare agencies, etc.

How about the updating of the register ?

We have established procedures for updating. As concerns the change of address, it is the obvious interest of the resident to register it in order to keep the benefit of banking services, social security, etc. As concerns births, we cannot of course register infants as their biometric identifiers are not yet stable. Fingerprints and iris can be captured and recorded from the age of 5, photograph from the age of 15. Again, the incentive is such for the parents that we do not have any problem with the coverage of new residents.

Over time, with more people joining the project, more benefits will come. Aadhaar is the basic platform and can be used in various social service delivery mechanisms including health, public distribution, education, pensions and scholarships. Further, Government intends to transfer social security benefits to Aadhaar enabled bank accounts, which is a way to ensure the benefit reaches the intended beneficiary. The UID project aims to provide a platform or foundation where public services could be delivered in a more efficient and transparent manner.

Can you tell us more about the governance of the project?

First it should be reminded that this is an all-India project, with precise objectives. It is not a national security project. Its main goal is developmental, social and economic: it is to strengthen equity, and thus develop the country, especially through social and economic inclusion of all sections of society. The UID project’s mandate is to enable better and more efficient delivery of services.

The UIDAI itself is a Government of India organization, performing its duty under the aegis of the Planning Commission. Its mandate is to issue unique numbers to the residents of the country. It is responsible for setting up the infrastructure and technology backbone to run this project. While the generation of the unique number is centralized, the collection of data of residents is federated and the responsibility of registrars. The UIDAI thus engages public and private entities for various activities of the project as per laid down government procedures to perform specific tasks under the overall strategic direction of the Government of India.

It should be noted that the central database is not accessible to any other agency. The data are shared only with public agencies for delivery of public services where the resident has consented to the same. The UIDAI only authenticates the identity of a resident by an online authentication process.

The private sector is not allowed to access the database. But the Aadhaar number is a proof of identity. The banking system has accepted it as proof of identity and proof of address and sufficient Know Your Customer (KYC) for opening a bank account. It is also sufficient KYC for insurance and other financial products.

In Western countries, there is a growing concern about privacy and the use of personal data. Was the UIDAI project challenged or questioned in India?

Yes, some questions have been raised, suggesting for instance that such a collection of biometric data could be an invasion of a citizen’s right to privacy. Some public figures have also claimed that technology should not be used to solve problems.. Every project which has a transformatory potential would have its critics. But the decision was not a technocratic one: it has been debated and consciously undertaken by government. Aadhaar is not a panacea for all ills of society. However, it has the potential to address many of the issues of exclusion.

The UIDAI is aware of the issue relating to privacy and has taken all steps to ensure data security of the resident’s data. The draft Bill of the Authority also has taken steps to ensure adequate privacy and security of data. Some of the technologies, such as biometrics, are quite recent and require high standards. The whole process is guided by specific rules, which have been designed by two different committees. As indicated previously, we follow the recommendations of the Demographic Data Standards and Verification procedures committee (in PDF), and, regarding biometrics special standards, of the Biometrics Standards Committee report (in PDF).

India is the largest democracy in the world and the UIDAI project is a fantastic challenge. If this project meets its goals, do you think that other countries will follow?

The lessons of the UID project could definitely be shared with other governments. We have received requests from many countries to share the learnings and challenges of the project. One important thing, in this regard, is that most elements of the project are in the public domain. So anyone can look at the design and replicate it.

As a conclusion, let me underline the fact that our national identification number project is a major contribution to the economic and social development of India. A similar project could bring the same benefits to many other countries.


  • UIDAI's official website
  • Recent articles on UIDAI (Planet Biometrics)
  • An interview with Nandan Nilekani at the beginning of the project (Knowledge@Wharton, 2010)

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