India’s High-Tech Billion-Person Aadhaar Identity System Can’t Cope With Real-Life Biometrics

We first wrote about India’s Aadhaar system, which assigns a unique 12-digit number to all Indian citizens, a year ago. Mainstream media are finally waking up to the scale of the project, as this article in the Guardian indicates:

The Aadhaar scheme was launched in 2009, under former prime minister Manmohan Singh, but the current government, led by Narendra Modi, is credited with rolling it out across India. According to the latest figures in May 2016 from the Unique Identification Authority, more than a billion people have been given Aadhaar numbers. Within the next few months, the details of every person in India will be in the government database.

To allay privacy and surveillance concerns, the Indian government insisted initially that Aadhaar was to be purely voluntary. But as Techdirt reported earlier this year, it’s quite clear that the government’s intention is to get everyone on to the Aadhaar system, and to embed it ever-more deeply in daily life. The principal argument for doing so is that it will make India’s bureacracy more efficient, help fight corruption, and make it easier for citizens to receive government support:

The data collected by the Aadhaar centres will be stored in a network of servers in the southern city of Bangalore. Information from the database can then be circulated to different authorities. The ID system, according to the government, will prevent welfare fraud and ensure subsidies and social security schemes are reaching the right people.

All laudable goals, but an article in The Times of India reveals the reality. In the Indian State of Rajasthan, 14 million people have dropped off the Aadhaar system. A major problem is that one of the key biometric identifiers — fingerprints — is proving unusable for precisely the groups of people that Aadhaar was supposed to help:

Hard manual labour flattens fingerprint patterns on the palm. Chances of the machines detecting them are really dim.

These patterns also fade with age. “I’ve never been a manual labourer, but at 70 the lines on my fingers are faint and the device never works with me too,” says Aruna Roy of [the Indian social movement] MKSS.

Vaishali Devi of Kishangarh tehsil, Ajmer, complains she’s been deprived of ration and pension for over three months. She was at the Jawab Do dharna in Jaipur for 20 days. With her was fellow villager Vanni Bai. For three months, she hasn’t been able to collect her quota of supplies.

Another issue is that poor Internet connectivity makes it hard to check readings with the central Aadhaar databases in Bangalore, so many attempts are necessary before fingerprints are recognized, and the food rations can be given out. The good news is that there’s an alternative approach:

In principle, the Unique Identity Authority of India, implementing agency for Aadhaar can issue a one-time password to the ration seeker’s mobile phone if the system fails.

The bad news:

Many using the system can’t afford mobile phones; some don’t remember the number registered on their Aadhaar.

It sounds like getting India’s 1.29 billion population to use the Aadhaar system for routine daily transactions is going to be something of a challenge, to put it mildly.