Top 3 Biometric Lessons from Indian National ID Program

In spite of facing many issues while implementing its ambitious biometric national ID program, India has managed to enroll over 1.18 billion people and deployed a numerous of public and private applications which brought equality to unprivileged residents and helped Indian government save $9 billion so far (Nov 2017), says Nandan Nilekani, former UIDAI Chairman.

Iris biometrics ID India

(Credit: Trulioo)

Back in 2010, the increasing of Indian population, migration from neighboring countries as well as numerous variants of identity cards like ration card, voter ID card, and PAN card forced Government of India to form ‘Unique Identification Authority of India’ or UIDAI in short. The primary responsibility of the UIDAI is to issue Aadhaar number which can be used for all the government transactions/benefits schemes. However, there are many factors which may cause problems in the success of this project. Below are the top 3 biometric challenges and how India has overcome them.

Failing to enroll biometric data is a major challenge because Aadhaar is meant to be inclusive and every resident should be registered. UIDAI conducted a POC which mentioned that iris recognition proved to be more inclusive than fingerprints with 0.33% of the population not able to provide iris scans compared to 1.7% for fingerprints. Old age and heavy manual work were the primary reasons for not able to provide qualified fingerprints. Iris scans are accurate, relatively stable from the young age and easy to capture, combining with fingerprint scans gives a much better accuracy at deduplication than any method alone.

Since UIDAI has to cover its 1.3 billion people, it’s required a high implementation cost. In order to provide transparency, accountability, scalability, and technical compliance without proprietary systems that are expensive and limit innovation, UIDAI opened a standards-based competition and used multiple vendors to avoid vendor lock-in. Biometric vendors have to be STQC certified to provide their biometric scanners to this project. As a result, it brings down the cost. As of July 2017, India Government has spent roughly $1.4B on the project since its inception and has issued 1.157B Aadhaar numbers. That would put the cost of each Aadhaar card at a little over a $1. Furthermore, we should look into the substantial benefits that the program would bring in terms of reducing leakages in the financial distribution system in many schemes by eliminating fakes and duplicates from beneficiary and employee list.

Through significant effort in increasing financial access for underserved populations and reducing the cost of processing bank applications, there are 282 million bank accounts are opened as of March 2017. However, despite this progress, it’s estimated that more than a hundred million people in India remain excluded from financial services and many more remain underbanked according to State of Aadhaar 2016-17 Report. As an effort, the government has utilized the use of Aadhaar number, biometric authentication and mobile proliferation in four ways, namely e-KYC for account opening, Aadhaar-enabled micro ATMs for remote banking, Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), and Aadhaar-enabled payments systems.

An estimated 1.5 billion people around the world cannot prove their identity. Lack of formal identification can deny individuals access to entitlements such as social safety nets, voting rights, and basic financial products. Digital biometric identity which has the potential to increase coverage, accuracy, efficiency and convenience relative to traditional paper-based methods can tackle those problems. The Aadhaar’s success has inspired many countries including Russia, Morocco, Tunisia and other African countries to give their citizens digital identity. In summary, remember these 3 lessons which are: 1. include iris recognition in multimodal biometric system, 2. set standards and competitions for vendors and finally, combine biometrics with mobile technology.