Tech fraternity wants iPhone compatibility with Aadhaar

Apple Inc recently named India as one of its most important growth areas for the next decade and is in early stages to bring its retail stores to the country. However, India’s tech community including start-up founders say that Apple should make the fingerprint reader in their iconic iPhone compatible with Aadhaar for biometric authentication, if it has to tap the South Asian country’s market.

Technologists and start-up founders said companies like Apple are acting as a ‘gate keeper’ for biometric authentication. They say the firm is averse to allow open application programme interface that allows access to their propriety software.

“India is now the world’s largest smartphone market and it should compel them (smartphone companies) to change their philosophy,” said India’ s top tech entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani, who spearheaded the country’ s massive unique identification project Aadhaar. “India is an open market, but we also want people in this market to play by our rules,” said Mr. Nilekani who is a mentor at software product think tank iSPIRT, that aims to transform India into a hub for new generation software products.

Mr. Nilekani said the government should take up the issue and make sure the smartphones sold in India with biometric system including fingerprint readers and iris scanners are compatible with Aadhaar. He said the country has certain digital standards which are required for the economic growth and Aadhaar authentication on the smartphone is one of them.

An email query sent to Apple to share insights about their plans of making iPhones compatible with Aadhaar went unanswered.

India has overtaken United States to become world’s second largest smart phone market, after China, with 220 million users according to Counterpoint Research. Experts said smartphone makers like Samsung, Lenovo and Micromax have already made their phones compatible with Aadhaar.

“The current implementation of Apple’s authentication is not Aadhaar-compatible,” said Sanjay Swamy, who worked with the Unique Identification Authority of India and now runs venture capital firm Prime Venture Partners. “It would be terrific if Apple supported the Aadhaar authentication system,” said Mr. Swamy whose firm has backed payment technology start-ups such as Ezetap and Happay.

Two-factor authentication

Experts say that now increasingly for financial and other transactions, consumers would need to do two factor authentication.

One factor of authentication is the phone itself. The second factor of authentication is either biometric (fingerprint reader, iris scanner) or one time password (OTP) linked to biometric authentication, depending on the nature of the financial transaction.

A few start-up founders also said that a closed-source platform like Apple’s mobile operating system iOS will not allow developers to build innovations atop the Aadhaar platform. This becomes more important at a time, when the Cupertino-based firm launched a smaller, cheaper iPhone SE on Monday, aimed at making deeper inroads in emerging markets like India and China.

“There will be an issue. I can’t use this (Apple fingerprint reader) for biometric authentication unless it is authorised,” said Adhil Shetty, founder of BankBazaar.com, an online financial services start-up. The firm is investing heavily on its mobile app that will help consumers get financial products and also provide support to manage their finances. “They (Apple) will have to keep their software system open for Aadhaar.”

Sanjiv Singhal, founder of fintech start-up Scripbox said that a combination of large number of smartphones and mobile devices combined with the availability of an infrastructure like Aadhaar makes India a unique economy.

“Aadhaar is a fantastic opportunity and smartphone brands need to enable their ecosystems to make use of this seamlessly,” said Mr. Singhal.

Privacy concerns

Privacy advocates say that smartphone makers should learn from Apple, for not allowing any backdoors and not compromising on privacy and security.

It is fighting a legal battle with the U.S government that concerns whether and to what extent courts in the U.S can compel manufacturers to assist in unlocking cell phones whose contents are cryptographically protected. But technology experts said in a system like Aadhaar, there won’t be any compromises made in the security standards for capture, transmission, validation and storage of resident data.

“In any biometric authentication, the data is never allowed to be stored anywhere during the transaction,” said Mr.Swamy of Prime Venture Partners.

He is of the view that India is playing a leadership role in the biometrics security standards communities around the world. “We expect other countries and systems to also adopt what India is developing.”