Is India More Comfortable With State Biometrics Than Other Countries?

Kathryn Cave looks at the Indian UID program and catches up with industry professionals on the ground to discover more about biometrics in India.

“In many countries there is an apprehension about biometrics and acceptability is low owing to [the] association of biometrics with criminology in people’s minds,” says Venkatesh Commuri, AVP of Precision Biometric India Pvt. Ltd.  “The case in India is that biometrics was introduced in civilian applications very early. For example, William James Herschel used fingerprints to identify Indian pension claimants in the 1870s. However he failed to get his approach adopted by the British administration.  Therefore there is a higher degree of acceptance and potential.”

Today around 70% of the Indian population live across 640,000 villages and an estimated 30% do not have a bank account. Verifying identity is therefore difficult and currently consists of a varied patchwork of systems with many residents carrying up to four forms of identity.  Now things are set to change with the new biometric system which is collecting fingerprints and iris scans of all Indian residents and assigning them a unique ID in a database in a data-storage cloud.

This system has received a lot of mistrust internationally but Nandan Nilekani, founder of Infosys and now chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India told the BBC recently: “[In developed nations] identity happens when a child is born; it is a basic document. [In India, half of births aren't registered.] It's a serious handicap... Unique identification is a means to empowerment."

Commuri is also convinced of the advantages: “The linkage of various schemes with the UID would help prevent leakages and lead to a large saving for the government every year. Government departments can work at a quicker pace and deliver accurate results [in] banking, health, civil supplies, planning commission [and] education segment [for example]. The project could lead to a great improvement in the overall lifestyle of the people and help bring in predictability, prosperity and harmony.”

There does seem to be a certain level of need to classify people across India. eMudhra Consumer Services, for example recently set up Digital Security Centres which specifically set out to verify people for the purposes of secure online banking. This may seem bizarre in other parts of the world. Yet Ms. Kalaivani Chittaranjan, MD and CEO described the Digital Security Centres as “like an ATM only to verify your identity.”

“The main application of biometric – arresting impersonation – is most needed for the country of India owing to the high population density,” says Commuri. “Therefore the appetite for implementing biometric technologies is quite high.” He believes: “adoption of biometrics, may potentially [even] do away with paper passports, visas, hassles of password based access to applications, internet websites and may be even replace paper currency. The benefits are similar to the move from paper to dematerialized transactions.”

Mizhan Rahman, CEO of global biometrics company, M2SYS says: “One of things we’ve seen is that [biometrics] projects [which] were initially adopted by the government, [in turn] fuel a huge growth in the private sector. [This] is happening in India, because of this big ID project people are looking to biometrics more and more. Every time we see a big government [biometrics] project it immediately helps the growth of the private sector and other sectors where people never thought biometrics would be successful.”

“A lot of awareness has been created,” agrees Commuri. “Many enterprises are trying to leverage the benefits of adopting biometric technologies within their organization. The scale of the UID project has put the technology to its test and clarity is emerging on the largest possible scale on which biometrics can be reliably employed.”

This has had a clear impact on the entire market. “A few years back, there used to be a need to get to the basics,” he says “and explain biometrics, describe the base benefits of adoption while positioning various solutions. Now, the sales cycle starts at a more advanced level. We observe that organizations are much clearer about their requirements and discussions revolve around the nitty-gritties of implementation. We have also been observing a steady increase in the RFPs/tenders being floated for solutions involving biometric technologies – from basic time & attendance devices to the more complex two-factor authentication, logical access control and de-dup solutions.”

For many people around the world the problem however is the Big Brother aspect of it all. In a May article for the Guardian, Howard Schneider asked somewhat sceptically: “Could a semi-Orwellian programme to collect biometric data for 1.3 billion Indians become a key tool to pull people out of poverty and integrate them into the global economy?” Or as Arun Ross, a biometrics expert in the computer science department at Michigan State University summarised to Singularity Hub. “The surreptitious acquisition of biometric data is obviously a possibility.” 

Nandan Nilekani is keen to allay fear. He told Forbes: “Let me tell you that we take great care to safeguard the data. We encrypt at source; we anonymise data when we send it for verification; the database itself is encrypted; we have layers and layers of security. In fact, as far as biometrics is concerned, once we have extracted the minutiae, we put it offline.”

There are many people who are still cautious within in India. Brinda S Narayan, author of “Bangalore Calling” believes: “The Aadhar card should be an opt-in facility, wherein citizens who lack other means of identification can opt to have their biometrics captured to avail of goods and services that are currently denied to them.  I would be wary if the card is made mandatory because some legitimate beneficiaries who currently receive subsidized services could be affected by technology failures or biometric errors.”  

“I do have concerns about the State encroaching on citizens' privacy,” Narayan concludes: “The government needs to assure us of safeguards to prevent misuse of the database by both private and public parties.”  


« Biometrics: Password Life-Slaps & The iPhone 5S


Snowden Effect May Hurt Demand for US Cloud Datacentres »

Recommended for You

Trump hits partial pause on Huawei ban, but 5G concerns persist

Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond

FinancialForce profits from PSA investment

Martin Veitch's inside track on today’s tech trends

Future-proofing the Middle East

Keri Allan looks at the latest trends and technologies


Do you think your smartphone is making you a workaholic?