Benefits of Aadhaar are real but so are fears of biometric theft. Here’s why

As far as identification technology for citizens goes, nothing in the world rivals or even comes close to Aadhaar. The biometric-based (fingerprints and iris scans) 12-digit unique identity, now used by almost 1.1 billion Indians, is the most advanced of its kind. Jaijit Bhattacharya, partner, strategy and economics, KPMG India says, “India is at least a decade ahead of any other country in terms of using biometrics as an identity.”

The US and other countries use biometrics at immigration. Australia and Canada use biometric-based checks for border control. Israel also has Aadhaar-like biometric database of all Israeli residents. However, “no country is using biometricbased systems in as wide range of applications as India is envisaging,” says Madhur Singhal, partner, Bain & Company.

Plagued as India is by the menace of duplicate cards—random estimates suggest many citizens have anywhere from two to five driving licences, ration cards and the like—Aadhaar is the only one that evidently can’t be duplicated. And the government is pushing Aadhaar for almost everything—marriage certificates, passports, pension claims, opening bank accounts and now for mobile connections and also to be linked to PAN cards.


Neel Ratan, leader, government and public sector, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) India, says, “It makes immense sense to use Aadhaar to solve numerous problems in society—like targeting subsidies to right people. Ghost beneficiaries have disappeared with its use.”

Aadhaar is already being used in multiple places (see graphic). Its biggest benefit is universal and trusted verification of any individual and, as a result, Aadhaar is being used to acquire and authenticate customers faster in businesses like financial services or banking by doing eKYC (electronic Know Your Customer), eSigning of documents and so on.

Besides, “the government is linking transfer of subsidies and other benefits through Aadhaar. This ensures transparency. Aadhaar will form the basis for digital storage of documents as well, very soon,” says Singhal. Even as the Aadhaar world expands, there have been noises about why it is being made mandatory for multiple government schemes and how secure it is.

The Supreme Court has already noted that not having Aadhaar cannot be the basis for denying services. Certain groups have questioned security and raised privacy concerns. Recently, even former cricket captain MS Dhoni’s personal details were made public by a private Aadhaar enrolment centre, which has now been banned for 10 years.

Aadhaar looks super hi-tech and impregnable today. But technology itself could make it vulnerable. Aadhaar needs to be further strengthened as devices can be compromised to extract biometrics if the target is high value. Bhattacharya says, “Also, biometrics such as fingerprints have been shown to be compromised by taking a high resolution picture of the fingers and converting it into fingerprint gloves.” Be careful when you pose with the victory sign or a thumbs up ‘like’ sign before cameras. Master (1)

Fears of biometric theft are real and now the Japanese have reportedly started using skin-coloured gloves when being photographed so fingerprints can’t be lifted, which is possible via high-resolution photographs taken from a distance of 10 metres or less. Researchers at Japan’s National Institute of Informatics (NII) were able to copy fingerprints based on photos taken by digital cameras.

“Just by casually making a peace sign in front of a camera, fingerprints can become widely available,” NII researcher Isao Echizen was quoted in a January 11 post. He added that anyone can easily copy fingerprints. “Similarly, iris scans can be compromised. It’s possible to wear silicone implants with someone else fingersprints to access, say bank account, if that’s the only mode of access,” says Bhattacharya.
Adds Pradeep Dubey, Intel Fellow, Intel Labs director, parallel computing lab, “Biometrics has its own unique domain specific algorithms. The new trend is multi-modal— combine multiple forms of biometric features such as fingerprints, voice, iris and gait to improve recognition and resilience.”

Dubey believes the way out is to combine biometrics with non-biometric identification approaches, like one-time passwords. Some biometric hacking techniques are expensive and futuristic. Ratan feels “security fears are being overplayed.” Eventually, though, nothing is 100% secure, particularly any computer-based system.

Ratan says, “Aadhaar has the best possible security at present. Criticism comes from people who don’t get any benefit from Aadhaar. Ask the poor and those who benefit and it’s a different story.”

[Copyright By SHELLEY SINGH]

One thought on “Benefits of Aadhaar are real but so are fears of biometric theft. Here’s why

  • April 15, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    Last line of the story: “Criticism comes from people who don’t get any benefit from Aadhaar. Ask the poor and those who benefit and it’s a different story.”
    Obviously, the people who get the benefits out of Aadhaar are from the low income groups and what would any hacker get out of hacking such card details. The people who have got their life’s savings in different investments are all at risk and afraid of the real threat looming large of the theft of their identities and hacking. Nilkeni’s (who is a clever businessman to get all the benefits and perks of a cabinet level post for his selfish interest) funny reply that law is strong to punish the culprits is like saying that the criminal law in the country is strong and a killer will be definitely hanged. If somebody loses life, what does his or her ghost care for the punishment meted out to the killer after some years. Too many people handling the security of data (which is the defective structure) is itself a security risk. This government has no sense in going ahead with Aadhaar after a similar experiment failed in UK and openly admitted in the parliament after spending millions of pounds, which Nilkeni is well aware of. Now urgently one PIL is required in the Supreme Court to permanently bar the parliament in enacting any law to force Aadhar on the public. We thought that the UPA was totally inert and inactive and sent them off. Now this government is hyperactive (active where it should not be). God bless the Indian citizens. Can this government call for a referendum on the issue of acceptability of Aadhar as the single identity proof?

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