from the national-identity-card-club dept
National identification numbers are common enough -- many countries issue their citizens with a unique identifier. But in terms of scale, few can match Aadhaar, India's identity number system. As The Times of India explained a few years back, when the scheme was first announced:
Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique number which will be issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to all residents of the country. It's a step towards putting India in the club of more than 50 countries around the world that have some form of national identity cards. These include most of continental Europe (not the UK), China, Brazil, Japan, Iran, Israel and Indonesia. The number will be stored in a centralized database and linked to the basic demographics and biometric information photograph, ten fingerprints and iris of each individual. The number will be unique and would be available for online and offline verification and, hence, will rule out the possibility of duplicate and fake identities from government as well as various private databases.
The Aadhaar system is designed to make it easier for people on the sub-continent to prove their identity:
One of the key challenges faced by people in India is difficulty in establishing identity. People have multiple identity documents, each serving a different purpose. The most important characteristic of Aadhaar is its universality and it is assumed that the biometric card with the number will be gradually accepted across the country as the identification number by all service providers and government agencies.
The system is almost in place. According to an article in The Economic Times, as of this month, 870 million Aadhaar numbers have been issued. The hope is to achieve "universal coverage" -- 1.2 billion people -- by December.
Initially, the Indian government insisted that the scheme was voluntary, although even in 2013, there were concerns that it was effectively mandatory because various state benefits required its use. In 2014, India's Supreme Court reiterated that the system should not be compulsory, and also forbade the authorities from sharing biometric data held on the associated database with the police or similar agencies without the permission of the person concerned.
That raises one of the principal concerns with such centralized databases: the fact that, once created, there is a natural tendency to use them for purposes that have nothing to do with the original justification. For example, in 2013, there were suggestions that the Aadhaar card could be linked to driving licenses. In December last year, 100 million bank accounts were already associated with Aadhaar numbers. Last month, it was revealed that the Indian Railways may make the use of the Aadhaar number mandatory for booking online tickets. All of those will make tracking a person's activities much easier.
As the use of the Aadhaar system spreads to more domains, and becomes indispensable for more everyday services, that single number will assume an ever-greater importance in the lives of people in India -- and therefore become increasingly useful for identity fraud. It will doubtless make things much easier for the public there; but it will also provide the authorities with the perfect way of unifying all the information that they hold about citizens. Let's hope that by the time that happens, India has in place suitably robust laws regulating both government surveillance and data protection.