Big Brother in Hindi? A national ID program puts India at the fore of a technology revolution that is changing the world
For most Americans, nowhere are the repercussions of their nation’s increasingly insecure and outdated national identity systems more apparent than when they pass through security at the airport. In contrast to America’s struggles to adapt its decades-old systems to handle modern challenges, India is undertaking one of the grandest technology experiments ever attempted. In a massive, nationwide project, the government is attempting to collect the demographic information, fingerprints, and iris scans of all 1.2 billion residents.
With this information, the government hopes to issue a unique 12-digit “Aadhaar” (which means “foundation”) identity number to every man, woman, and child. If successful, India will build a major new piece of technological infrastructure for a modern economy, while fundamentally transforming the way residents interact with their government.
There are enormous logistical difficulties associated with the Aadhaar plan, as well as serious privacy and security risks. Doubts remain as to whether India’s people and institutions are prepared to handle the program’s massive enrollment process and dramatic impact.
Identifying the Problem
Proponents of the plan argue that it will lead to a fairer and more equitable distribution of public benefits. Currently, each governmental department works in isolation, maintaining its own separate databases and records. Over time, systematic corruption and mismanagement have populated these databases with fraudulent information. The Indian departments handling social support programs are often the most abused.
India’s federalist system of strong state governments, in addition to its national government, has resulted in each state and municipality exhibiting drastically different e-government capabilities. It is often in the poorest states where the worst abuses occur. Hundreds of millions of Indians rely on the help of the state, but there are still many places where most of the goods allocated for the poorest of families are stolen before they even reach them-and the social costs are enormous.