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

from the well,-that's-awkward dept

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.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “India's High-Tech Billion-Person Aadhaar Identity System Can't Cope With Real-Life Biometrics”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: At 70 the lines on my fingers are faint and the device never works with me

You are obviously not a recipient of the attitude that is commonly expressed towards those who are of the senior variety. I thought it summed it up very nicely the attitude common amongst many of the younger set towards those who are over the age of 40.

Craig Guthrie says:

iris and face

Erm you might like to mention that the Aadhaar programme also uses facial and iris recognition, but maybe best not to let facts get in the way of your agenda….
Plus, the alternative to a biometric database is a return to India’s corrupt and massive, paper-based beaurocracy, is that what you would prefer?

Ninja (profile) says:

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.

A case study on failing hard. But I’d say if you look through the control lens it’s a success. It’s easier to monitor the few not into the system, the rest just go through mass surveillance nets.

Anonymous Coward says:

Flattened fringerprints

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

Some people have faint and broken fingerprints without the manual labour part. It’s genetic. It happens to me. DHS scanners can’t scan mine. I actually have to get a letter from the state police HQ to say I don’t have a criminal record (yes, a letter, police fingerprint scanners can’t work on me either) for some purposes. This is not an unknown never-before-encountered issue. It continues to baffle me that fingerprints are seen in any way viable.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Flattened fringerprints

TV and movies have pushed the infallibility of things like fingerprints and hair/fiber analysis. IRL, these are now being successfully challenged in court. Hair and fiber analysis is mostly junk science, and fingerprints aren’t definitive unless you match a LOT more points than they usually do. On TV, they “solve” the case with a vague 4 point match, but in reality, it takes 10 or more to realistically id a perp.

And let’s not even get into “lie detector” tests…

Hari says:

Aadhaar need 3 more months time

Dear glynmoody ,
I would request you to have a proper in depth research instead of writing half cooked stories. AAdhaar will be successful if only it fixes its teething problems which are quite common with IT systems/Biometrics/Broadband. In INdia Geo is going to launch 4G and Broad band in September covering 75% of the country from Septmber 2016 onwards. Modi Govt is already improving Electricity availability + FIbre broadband availability (Google DigitalIndia). Please wait for 3 to 6 months. India is going to surprise the whole world by roaring like a Lion.


Anon says:


They could instead tattoo their number on each person. If inside the forearm does not work (a proven technique), how about across the forehead? Let’s modernize it by including a barcode, or better yet a QR code; use glow in the dark ink mixed with radium to minimize counterfeiting… maybe also insert a microchip under the skin.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t really see why this needs to be an issue (well, past the fact that they are pushing hard an ID system that some people might prefer didn’t exist). In my country we do have a personal ID too, but it comes on a state-issued card, no biometrics. It still serves the exact same purpose, our data can be queried from wherever the state keeps it based on that number, but all we need is a piece of plastic. It’s still hard to forge, and if it would include a smart chip it would be nigh-impossible to forge. Why must there be all this troublesome involvement with biometrics…?

Anonymous Coward says:


ok – am I missing something here? A 12 digit id code would have 12! combinations or 12x11x10x9…. = 479 million combinations. That’s less than half of the current population of India.

A 13 digit id code would give 6.2 billion combinations. A 14 digit code would give 87 billion combinations.

Why are they using an id code that doesn’t seem to meet current, let alone future needs?

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