Let’s Make a Citizen Out of You: The Rise of Biometric Identification in India

Source: Ruth Fremson, New York Times

In many developing countries, lack of documentation can be a major obstacle for people who want to claim their rights to citizenship. India, in particular, has as many as 400 million people unaccounted for.

In the book Paper Citizens, Kamal Sadiq explores India’s over-dependence on documentary citizenship and the difficulties created for the government to distinguish between who is a legal citizen and who is not. The current national identification card (NID) leads to problems such as “blurred citizenship” where many natural-born citizens (unable to receive government benefits without NIDs) resort to fake documentation in order to receive benefits such as access to government welfare programs, the ability to open a bank account or enroll in school, and protection from wrongful deportation from their homes.

This problem is most common in poor, isolated areas that the government cannot reach. In such areas, it is difficult to acquire something as simple as a birth certificate because the nearest hospital may be miles away. As a result, this makes it increasingly difficult for the child to obtain legal documentation as s/he grows older. An added dilemma is that paper documentation is easily lost. For those have legal documentation, one unforeseen natural disaster could easily wipe out everything, leaving many unaccounted for.

AADHAAR logoIn an attempt to rectify these problems, a recent private-public partnership in India has developed the unique identity (UID) scheme. This project electronically stores biometric data, such as thumbprint and iris scans, in order to establish national identity. After registering with UID, each person receives a 12-digit AADHAAR number that serves as their ID. Since its inception in 2009, UID has recorded 200 million out of India’s 1.2 billion people. The program plans to scan 600 million people into its database by 2014.

UID could have major benefits for India. For one, if UID reaches its goal of scanning the entire Indian population, it would make it difficult for illegal citizens to falsely acquire government benefits. The poorest would benefit greatly from the system as they would be allowed those rights from which they were previously barred and be safe from the threat of deportation. Another major benefit of the program is that it allows the government to electronically send money to banks and village shops, allowing for easier distribution of government welfare benefits. It must be asked, however, how this program determines who is a rightful citizen and who is not. Many illegal citizens have been successful in acquiring real documentation through fake means and could easily be put into the system. This could seriously undermine the validity of UID and level it to that of the current NID program.

However, if a country does choose to implement biometric identification schemes, Alan Gelb of the Center for Global Development (CGD) explains that, “enabling citizens to establish an official identity is a crucial part of the development process.” It allows for everyone to be accounted for, especially in instances of natural disasters or conflict. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries with documentation problems similar to those of India, biometric scanning ensured that over 200,000 returning refugees received only one repatriation payment. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, biometric scanning has been useful in demobilization grants. According to CGD, there are already eleven African countries taking part in some type of biometric identification (a complete list can be found here).

Tom Cruise in Minority Report getting an iris scan.

This may be a bit reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, a film based in a 2054 Washington D.C. that is dependent on retinal scanning to track its citizens. Similarly, the UID scheme has met resistance as many feel that the program may lead to misuse of private information for government benefit. Opponents frequently cite countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States and France, which did away with their own biometric identification programs because they impeded on the rights of their citizens.  In addition, a major concern is that the UID is linked with the National Population Register rather than the national census, allowing information gathered for the UID program to be widely shared (information sent to the national census is confidential). Many fear that because there are a number of U.S. corporations involved in the project, Washington will also have access to this information.

While such concerns may be warranted, this is not reason enough to do away with biometric scanning just yet.  Perhaps in order to ease such doubts, India could invest in stronger data-protection laws in order to better protect its citizens and dismiss any fears of breaches in confidentiality.


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