FEATURE
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India's massive, cutting-edge biometric system, aka UIDAI, is helping to bring India's poor out of the technological dark ages.

For most residents of developed countries, the ability to prove one's identity is something that's taken for granted. An entry-level rite of modern society, it enables a slew of transactions that would otherwise be out of reach—opening a bank account or getting a driver's license, for example. Yet millions of people in developing countries remain locked in the technological dark ages for lack of this basic mechanism.

Take India. Many of the country's poorest have no passport, driver's license or proof of address. They often live in villages where many share the same name. Simple tasks like receiving a welfare check electronically or getting credit from a cell-phone firm become complex, if not impossible. Meanwhile, corrupt middlemen exploit the absence of reliable IDs by fabricating "ghost workers" to cash in on government public-works schemes.

But all that is changing, thanks to India's national biometric identity scheme—a venture so colossal it's projected to require 10 times more data storage capacity than Facebook when fully rolled out. Known by the acronym UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India), it's easily the biggest ID scheme in the world, with over half of India's 1.2 billion residents already signed up.

"It represents a paradigm shift in identity systems," says Ashok Dalwai, deputy director general at the UIDAI Technology Center in Bangalore. "Our main focus is enrolling India's poor and underprivileged communities so we can improve service delivery to them via token-less—i.e., no cards or other physical tokens—online, anytime, anywhere authentication."

Gathering Momentum

Although the project has its political and ideological detractors, UIDAI appears to be a hit with the needy, many of whom welcome what they perceive as a stronger connection with the state that could improve their lives. Rural Indians have turned out in droves to enroll, waiting in long lines to have their photo taken and all 10 of their fingerprints and both irises scanned by "registrars" equipped with laptops. Once in the system, they are issued a 12-digit unique ID number.

To date, nearly 700 million Indians have enrolled—almost equivalent to the entire population of Europe. That's all the more remarkable given that the program is voluntary. The plan is for all Indians to enroll by June 2015.

"India is a welfare state where a large number of benefits are transferred to the people by way of subsidized programs," Dalwai says. "Any entitlement is based on establishing one's identity. Many of the poor tend to be excluded, and many others included more than once due to inadequacy of identity systems. UIDAI aims at addressing this gap."

Breakthrough Technology

The UIDAI system dwarfs the world's biggest biometric databases, including those of the FBI and the US-VISIT visa program (the latter clocks in at a mere 120 million records).

"It handles hundreds of millions of transactions across billions of records doing hundreds of trillions of biometric matches every day," Dalwai says.

But it's not just size that distinguishes UIDAI. The system is as technologically audacious as they come. Built on an Internet-class open source backbone, UIDAI is designed to expand with future population growth. Security and privacy are foundational; the biometric information travels in encrypted packets and is stored in data centers with triple-layered security. And the system makes verifying and authenticating a person's identity easy and cost effective. All that's needed is a cell phone, smart phone, tablet or other connected device—no paper-based documentation or smart cards required, Dalwai says.

An Ecosystem Approach

With its open architecture, standard application programming interfaces (APIs) and vendor neutrality, the UIDAI system has essentially developed an "identity platform" that can be used by third-party applications needing identity verification. Dalwai says the idea is to encourage, over time, an ecosystem of third-party apps.

A number of applications have already been developed and deployed on the platform. Examples include an electronic "know your customer" (eKYC) platform that's being used for things like verifying identity of passport applicants and opening bank accounts; an "enabled payment system" that facilitates direct transfer of benefits such as pensions and school stipends to beneficiaries; and "public distribution systems" used by the government to distribute subsidized food, kerosene and other basics to the poor.

Overcoming Challenges

Dalwai says rolling out such complex applications and integrating them with UIDAI has been one of many challenges with the program. Others include cost effectively standardizing a huge number of authentication devices, and overcoming network and connectivity issues in a vast country where only 1.1 per every 100 inhabitants has access to fixed broadband (India ranks 122 in the world for fixed broadband penetration, according to a 2013 report by the Broadband Commission).

Other challenges are non-technical—such as how to convince people to volunteer for the program in a democratic system, and how to allay apprehensions about data privacy and security, Dalwai says. But he's optimistic that even more people will see UIDAI's many benefits.

"The best-case scenario is the rollout of a large number of applications for welfare schemes, along with the rollout of applications for other purposes wherever establishment of identity is required," he says.

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About Laurence Cruz @zasque5

Laurence Cruz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.