The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Could a program tracking identities of 1.3 billion Indians be the secret to ending poverty?

Could a semi-Orwellian program to collect biometric data for 1.3 billion Indians become a key tool to pulling people out of extreme poverty and integrating them into the global economy? The world's largest democracy is betting it will, and that it could offer important benefits in poorer countries around the world.

In this case, Big Brother has a name. It is Nandan Nilekani, Indian technology entrepreneur, founder of outsourcing company Infosys, and now chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India – an agency that is collecting fingerprints and iris scans of all Indian residents and assigning them a unique ID number in a massive database on the cloud.

This is not, Nilekani insists, a scary example of government intrusion. Rather, he and others described the effort in near revolutionary terms during a lecture Monday at the Center for Global Development in Washington.

Suddenly, said Nilekani, tens of millions of people born without a birth certificate or any formal registration “exist” in the eyes of the government – and can demand services and benefits, get a mobile phone or open a bank account. Putting all the data on the cloud, he said, breaks the monopoly of civil servants over the distribution of such things as food and fuel subsidies.

Once you’re in the database, your identity can be verified at any government office, distributed from a bank, or transferred automatically to a bank account. It’s efficient. It cuts down on opportunities for corruption, such as bribes or what economists call “rent-seeking,” the skim off the top an official might demand for delivering a service. It vests people in the system – so much so that the roughly 30,000 registration sites Nilekani’s agency has established around India are registering a startling 1 million people a day. More than 300 million have been registered since the effort began, and the aim is to have half the population in the database in another year or so.

In developed nations, “identity happens when a child is born; it is a basic document,” Nilekani said. In India, half of births aren’t registered. “It’s a serious handicap…Unique identification is a means to empowerment.”

At the Center for Global Development, experts on the issue such as Alan Gelb are studying how Nilekani’s system – and indeed technology and biometrics generally – might speed development. Having a basic way to verify identity doesn’t just change the dynamics between citizen and government; it could encourage companies to set up, for example, health insurance systems in a given area because they are able to authenticate a policyholder’s identity.

It’s also a real example of how steady advances in computing power are changing the nature of how governments do business. The exercise involves collecting and manipulating massive amounts of data. To ensure that a person's biometric information isn't duplicated, Nilekani said, the Indian government chose to take prints from all 10 fingers and scans of both eyes – enough data from each individual to guarantee “uniqueness across a billion people.”

But consider this: Each time a person registers, his or her data has to be compared to everything in the system to be sure the person did not register elsewhere. And every time a resident shows up at a government office to collect a benefit, that individual's retinal image or thumbprint has to be matched against government records to make sure the person hasn't already received the benefit.

The technology did not even exist five years ago.

Nilekani downplays any privacy issues. There is only basic information in the database: the biometrics, a name, gender, date of birth. Agencies or businesses that build applications using the database are responsible for their own data security -- a bank for keeping its transactions private, a health company for securing its records.

It was not clear how law enforcement figures into the mix -- whether a finger print pulled from a crime scene, for example, could be run against the database.

But Nilekani appears less like an architect of "The Matrix" and more like an immigration agent, ushering people into the modern world.

“People are coming from the nonexistent to the organized world,” he said. “It’s a modern day Ellis Island.”