Last week I discussed how mobile phone numbers are coming to represent the identity of the user. One related topic I found fascinating is the Indian Identity Project. The Indian Identity Project, or Aadhaar, is an ambitious project to provide a digital identity for every Indian citizen, members of the second most populous nation at 1.2B people. Over 400 million Indians live at what is known as the “bottom of the pyramid” or under $2 per day. For these Indians, poverty has kept them out of many institutions and the general prosperity of the Indian economy.
The idea behind Aadhaar is very similar to the social security number in the U.S. except that it uses modern technology such as biometrics, smartphones and cloud computing. Each person gets an iris scan, fingerprint scan, photo and a 12-digit identity number. The images are stored digitally and can be easily retrieved to identify people with basic smartphone technology. The benefits of a digital identity are numerous. It helps people get bank accounts, book tickets online and maintain health records. Plus there are no cards, which are usually counterfeited or stolen. Because identity based on biometrics cannot be faked, Aadhaar can also be used to ensure those eligible to receive government assistance receive their full benefits without the middlemen who often take a significant cut of money and rations meant to help the poor.
Aadhaar is the largest and most ambitious project of its kind. While the idea of a centrally maintained identity database based on biometrics would make privacy advocates in Western countries cringe, the program has widespread support amongst the general public. The benefits of a digital identity, available “anywhere, anytime, any way,” is seen as a means to participate in the economy and be recognized by institutions.
The project hit a speed bump in 2013 when the BJP government was elected to power. Because Aadhaar was started by the previous administration of the Congress party, many in the new government wanted to cancel the program. Thanks to Arvind Gupta, Technology and Innovation Head of the BJP, and others who faced political headwinds, the program kept going. How the Indian Identity Project progresses and the value it creates for its citizens will be closely watched at Whitepages where a real identity for everyone in the world is our central mission.