In 2006, Ajay Trehan set up AuthBridge, a background verification company in Gurgaon. That was a time when business process outsourcing was booming. Global companies like Citibank were relocating back-office functions to India. Outfits like AuthBridge sprang up in response to help these companies find qualified staffers. They vetted applicants by running identity checks, verifying education and employment records, doing reference checks and more.
Ten years later, AuthBridge’s client profile has changed. With rising insecurity over crimes in India’s cities, like the December 2012 gangrape in Delhi, or the rape of a young woman in an Uber taxi in 2014, local companies – sizeably from e-commerce and businesses with delivery services – have also started vetting employees and partners to check if they have any criminal history. “Now, we have about 700-800 clients,” said Trehan. “Of them, just 20%-30% are foreign companies.”
AuthBridge’s verification process has changed too. Earlier, its employees used to physically verify the credentials of an applicant by travelling to her school or college, meeting her previous employer, vetting her identity papers with the government department that issued them, and so on.
Now they simply run a query on an electronic database.
Aadhaar enters the private sector
Aadhaar, as India’s Unique Identity Project is called, aims to give a 12-digit unique identity number to all residents by collecting their fingerprint and iris scans. As of September, its database, maintained by the Unique Identity Authority of India, held the names, addresses and biometric information of more than 105 crore people.
The project was created by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2009 to reduce leakages in the country’s welfare programmes.
But, quietly, a range of private sector companies have started using it. This includes verification firms like Authbridge, banks like HDFC, telecommunications companies like Reliance Jio, among others.
So far, most discussions on Aadhaar have focused on its utility for welfare delivery and the risk of government surveillance. But as private sector companies incorporate Aadhaar into their systems, fresh questions and concerns are emerging about what this means. A recent tweet by a journalist that went viral encapsulated these concerns.
To understand the rewards and risks of the use of Aadhaar by private companies, here is a detailed look at how they are using it.
Five ways of using Aadhaar
The first way in which companies are using Aadhaar is pure authentication. This is how Authbridge uses Aadhaar. It sends a name and Aadhaar number to the Unique Identity Authority’s server, which responds to say whether they have matched.
Apart from background verification companies, Aadhaar-based authentication can also be used by employers. “A factory hiring women or a security agency hiring guards and wanting to be sure these people are who they claim to be,” said Pramod Varma, the chief architect and technology advisor for the Aadhaar project.
It could also be used by regulated entities with strong Know Your Customer or KYC norms like banks or telecommunications companies. In the old days of branch-based banking, KYC was not a problem, said Varma, since “the bank manager knew all his customers”. But now, KYC is much harder since banks have moved to “core banking with millions of accounts in the server”. Instant Aadhaar-authentication, he said, is useful for verifying customers.
The second is authentication plus. Here, at the time of authentication, a company also downloads the customer’s data from the Aadhaar database. This is what companies like Reliance Jio are doing.
When a customer provides his Aadhaar number to the company, the company not only runs a query on the Aadhaar database to verify the name and number, it also downloads other information about the customer held on the server, like address, date of birth and gender.
This data can be used to electronically fill out the Know Your Customer forms, replacing what is right now a manual process, said Anupam Varghese, the head (products) of Eko India Financial Services, a financial services startup in the phone banking and remittances segment.
It is a disruptive proposition that companies find useful. In India, the cost of enrolling customers is so high, said Abhishek Sinha, the founder of Eko, that it prices a set of financial products beyond the reach of most Indians. “Authenticating a credit card customer and vetting her identity papers will cost anywhere between Rs 150-Rs 200,” he said. A company can recover that investment only if the customer racks up at least Rs 10,000 on the card, assuming a 2% margin on card transactions.