How Aadhaar compares to other biometric national identification systems around the world

The Aadhaar program is one of the technology success stories of India, and is an initiative unparalleled in scope anywhere else in the world. India is leading the way in the implementation of a national identification program linked to biometric data. As of March 2017, 113 crore residents in India have an Aadhaar card, which is roughly 88.6 percent of the projected population.

Delhi, Haryana and Telangana have seen the most enthusiastic adoption of Aadhaar, with the number of people with Aadhaar exceeding the projected populations of the state. The adoption of Aadhaar is markedly lagging in the north eastern states, with less than 10 percent of the projected populations in Assam and Nagaland having Aadhaar cards.

The card is meant to streamline bureaucratic processes, for better governance, delivering a range of services to the citizens as well as distribution of benefits and subsidies. Rs 671 crore of subsidies was directly transferred to 10 lakh farmers in Karnataka, in one smooth operation, proving the potential of Aadhaar. The central and state exchequers have saved Rs 36 crore in two years because of the deployment of Aadhaar.

Paul Romer, the chief economist at the World Bank, told Bloomberg that a worldwide standardised system on the lines of Aadhaar will benefit everyone on the planet. “The system in India is the most sophisticated I have seen. It’s the basis for all kinds of connections that involve things like financial transactions. It could be good for the world if this became widely adopted,” Romer said.

While many countries have registries of the population, smart passports with chips that store personal documents and other information, and a thriving biometrics market, few have implemented a program as ambitious and featured as Aadhaar. Comparable initiatives are underway in Brazil, Ghana, Indonesia and Malaysia.

aadhaar-worldwide

Brazil

Brazil has had a national identity card program since the 1980s. In its current form, there are several points of similarities between Brazil and India when it comes to the implementation of a nationwide identification program with biometric features.

Both countries are in the process of implementing the latest technologies to “leapfrog” beyond the developed nations. The cards are a necessity in practice, even though not officially mandatory according to the law. The Brazilian version of UIDAI is called The Brazilian Association of Digital Identification Technology Companies (Abrid).

Abrid brings together digital identification, smartcards, and biometric identification services to the citizens of Brazil. Brazil is on the forefront of implementing biometric authentication for banking transactions, an initiative similar to the Aadhaar Enabled Payment System in India, which is seeing a steady growth in usage. Users can withdraw money from ATMs by using a fingerprint scanner, even without a plastic card. Similar to India, fingerprints of all the ten fingers are collected at the time of enrollment.

A similar application in India for remote and rural areas is the Aadhaar pay app for merchants, which allows users to authenticate electronic transactions using only their fingerprints, without the need for a smartphone or a card. Retail chains in Brazil allow consumers to make purchases with a biometric fingerprint scanner, authenticated in tandem with a smartphone.


Payment Authentication through biometric scanning for the Aadhaar Payment app. Image: Narendra Bhooshan Twitter: @nbhooshan
Payment Authentication through biometric scanning for the Aadhaar Payment app. Image: Narendra Bhooshan

In Brazil, the identity cards are used to streamline bureaucratic processes, where a single card acts as a stand in for numerous other identification cards. Unlike India though, the Brazilian identity card guarantees citizenship, something that Aadhaar does not claim to do. Just the ID number is sufficient to glide through several official processes that require identification, similar to the implementation in India.

Ghana

Ghana is another emerging economy that is looking at implementing the latest technologies. Similar to the inception of Aadhaar in India, the earliest versions of the national identity card, known as the Ghana card was envisioned for the people living in the troublesome borders of the country.

The authority that oversees the issuing of the Ghana card is known as the National Identification Authority (NIA), which is the equivalent of the UIDAI in Ghana. A national identification program was first introduced in Ghana in the 1970s, but the implementation of the Ghana card in its present form followed the recommendations of a technical committee tasked with overhauling the national identification system in Ghana, presented before the cabinet in 2002.


ghana-id
The various services offered by the Ghana card. Image: NIA.

The mandate was to cover all citizens, including resident non Ghanians. Similar to Aadhaar, the Ghana card was conceived as an instrument to rapidly deliver public services. There was a focus on banking transactions through the Ghana card, similar to the Aadhaar Enabled Payment System. There were intense mass registration exercises in the early days of the overhaul, similar to the early period of Aadhaar roll out in India.

Similar to the Aadhaar card in India, organisations and individuals authorised to access the data of the citizens can do so through a centralised database. The Ghana card provides organisations with data sharing, personal information verification, online identity validation and biometric verification services. The services are regulated by the National Identity Register Act, which is a parallel to the Aadhaar Act in India.

Indonesia

The identity card in Indonesia is called Karta Tanda Penduduk (KTP), and the electronic version is known as the eKTP. The eKTP combines features from the unique identity cards used in the People’s Republic of China, and the Aadhaar card from India. The introduction of the eKTP included a registration blitz, similar to the implementation of national identity cards with biometric features in India and Ghana.

The fingerprints of all the ten fingers are stored in the central database, similar to India and Brazil. However, only two of the fingerprints are stored on a chip on the card. Unlike India, where a printout or a xerox is a valid ID card, the version of the card in Indonesia is embedded with smart electronics. There are separate versions of the card for residents and non residents.


Indonesian national identity cards. Image: Detik/ e-KTP
Indonesian national identity cards. Image: Detik/ e-KTP

The primary purpose of the eKTP is to be the single document needed for verification of identity. The eKTP is necessary for the delivery of a number of public services to the citizens. Users cannot get a SIM card without an eKTP. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has reccomended the verification of existing SIM cards using the Aadhaar based e-KYC service.

The residents cannot enjoy benefits of the healthcare program in Indonesia without an eKTP, not go through the process of immigration, and not enjoy some banking services. In India, although the government is trying to increase the scope of Aadhaar in the distribution of benefits, the Supreme Court has ruled that no citizen of the country should be deprived of benefits for not having an Aadhaar card.

In Indonesia the system has been implemented to streamline the bureaucratic processes, and prevent citizens from having to submit the same documents over and over again in various government offices. The reasons for the implementation of Aadhaar in India are similar. The Indonesian government plans to make eKTP a requisite for all schemes by the government, going forward.

Malaysia

Malaysia has one of the most advanced national identity card programs in the world. It was the first country to introduce biometric security in a computer chip along with photo identification on a single card in 2001. The citizens can choose to add the services that they want to use the card for, which is an approach India can take for the benefit of its citizens.

The MyKad card is compulsory, for all adult permanent residents of the country. Users can choose to use the card as an ATM card, a digital wallet and a driving license, among other applications. The card is a result of the Government Multi-Purpose card project, and Malaysia developed its own technologies and methodologies for the implementation, as there were no similar projects anywhere in the world when Malaysia introduced a multi-purpose smart card.

The main difference in the implementation with India, is that the entire process is introduced as a replaceable smartcard. The card stores identification details, biometric information of the fingers, and the religion for Muslims. Apart from a proof of identity, the MyKad is also a proof of address, unlike the Aadhaar card. In practice, there are some situations where Aadhaar is used as an address proof. An RBI circular allows the use of Aadhaar as address proof, and an Aadhaar card is a valid proof of address for the passport verification process.

Users can choose to use the MyKad card as a license. The citizens are no longer required to then carry around a driving license, and can present the MyKad card on demand from traffic police. The road transport department allows renewal of the driving license component directly on the MyKad cards.

Within Malaysia, the MyKad card is accepted as an alternative to the passport. Users with MyKad can exit and enter the country through the control gates. However, Malaysian residents travelling internationally, are required to produce a regular passport at foreign locations, and the MyKad is not a substitute for the passport internationally.

MyKad is also used as a public key infrastructure for the users. Those who activate this feature can use the MyKad for verification, authentication and encryption. The services can be used by any service, but is particularly useful for banking, shopping, public services and billing. There is an optional feature to authenticate email access through MyKad as well.


A MyKad card from Malaysia. Image: MyKad.
A MyKad card from Malaysia. Image: MyKad.

The contactless electronic fund transfer feature on the MyKad can be used for making payments in Highway toll plazas, rail transport, car parks and theme parks. Aadhaar does not have these features as yet, but can potentially be introduced through the Aadhaar enabled payment system. In India, local transport systems use their own smart cards, and toll plazas have their own digital payment infrastructures.

The important distinction here as compared to India, is that while the Malaysian government makes it compulsary to collect biometric data of all the permanent residents, when and where to use the card, and for which applications, is entirely up to the user. The Indian Aadhaar program could do with a little more freedom of choice. The benefits and applications of Aadhaar stand to multiply if the government can actually issue a smart card version of Aadhaar.

Extensions to the basic MyKad system have seen the platform being used as a storage medium for the records of farmers participating in local markets. An agricultural market information portal has been integrated into MyKad. India can potentially integrate its Farmer’s portal into Aadhaar.

There are over 166,000 points of usage of the MyKad card. Information required for Fishermen and Pensioners are stored directly on the card. The government also uses the card for the distribution of benefits, similar to the approach in India. Children between the ages of 12 to 18 have their own optional version, known as the MyKid card.

India

Biometric authentication and security mechanisms are rarely implemented in a mass scale around the world. The reason for this is that there are various problems with biometrics. One of the major ethical concerns is what happens if the data gets into the wrong hands (say a government hostile to sections of the population comes into power and abuses the database).

A Human rights body known as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) asked the US to not disclose the biometric data it gathered while occupying Iraq, to the new Iraqi government, citing concerns of potential human rights violations.

There are concerns of data security, privacy of the data, and uncertainty around the organisations trusted with Aadhaar data. An agency trusted with collecting Aadhaar data has been blacklisted for ten years after they publicly tweeted out sensitive private information of cricketer MS Dhoni. Simple search terms on Google deliver thousands of databases from third parties containing Aadhaar numbers linked to other personal information.


Aadhaar enrollment. Image: Reuters
Aadhaar enrollment centers are a potential source of leaks. Image: Reuters

The databases showing up in the search results originating from government web sites have been silently disappearing though. Using Aadhaar for banking transactions at vendor locations is as good as handing over your password, if the authentication devices are compromised. Despite these concerns, the UIDAI as well as IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad rightly point out that the central Aadhaar database is adequately secured, and has never been compromised.

One of the major drawbacks for India is that the Aadhaar is not a smart card. The rollout of such a card would be expensive, but the public stands to benefit much more than Aadhaar in its current form. At least some concerns over biometric authentication would be quelled because of the alternative of a smart card. A number of government services, and data relevant to the users can be stored on the smart card itself.

Choice is another important factor here. Allowing the users to choose when and what services to use for Aadhaar gives the end user the control, as well as peace of mind. In such an implementation, the citizens do not feel cornered into actions that they are not comfortable with, and which could expose them to more risk in terms of security and privacy. The privacy laws in the country are dismal, and India does not even have dedicated laws for privacy or data protection, both of which are the need of the hour, and have implications for the introduction of next generation technologies beyond Aadhaar.