Fingerprinting a Billion

Identity theft is one of the fast growing crimes in America.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, it grew 13% in 2011, affecting over 11 million adults and costing consumers and businesses over $50 billion. On the other side of the world, in India, one of the biggest impediments to growth is not theft or misuse of an identity but a complete lack of one.

Publicly available estimates indicate that of India’s 1.2 billion people only 50 million have a passport, about 100 million people have PAN cards (used for filing taxes and conducting certain kinds of bank transactions) and another 200 million have driving licenses. It’s almost hard to believe but it’s true: the vast majority in India does not have an identity.

In fact, the baseline document for most people remains a “ration card” that allows access to subsidized food grains from a public distribution system. But because there is no definitive connection of a ration card to a unique individual i.e. no biometrics, no photos (requirements vary by State, in most cases only the photo of the head of household is required), and no protection standards (e.g. holograms, tamper proof lamination, embedded chips), fraud and patronage run rampant in the system.

Pushing Borders and Boundaries
In early 2009 the government decided to embark on a technologically formidable and politically risky journey of issuing a definitive 12-digit ID to each and every citizen of India. From a national security and operational efficiency perspective, the need was pretty clear. If one thinks of the U.S. has a problem with undocumented migrants from south of the border, imagine a country like India which shares contiguous (and very porous) land borders with as many as six countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Myanmar.

And the folks from several of these countries physically look alike and speak the same set of languages that people in India speak. In other words, once an individual walks across the often undefined border, it is absolutely impossible to determine if he was a native born son of India or an undocumented alien from across the border. And herein lies the problem: to prove who you are, in order to get that all critical ration card, you merely need proof of residence (or bring along two individuals to vouch for you) and – voila! – anyone can get a ration card as well. With a ration card, it is nearly impossible for anyone to throw you out. Welcome to your new home, green cards not required.

India has racked up some impressive rates of growth during the last decade and a half. Visit India today and the impact of this growth is apparent at the street level –  new construction, millions of mobile phones and a sassy, new can-do attitude to go along with it. The tax receipts of the Central Government have improved considerably as well, up 49% in the last 2 years and slated to hit $200 billion (Source: in this current fiscal.

But if the nation’s top line is getting a shine, good governance remains an issue. The government has launched many well-intended schemes to help with poverty alleviation and to ease chronic unemployment, including the well-known Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) which guarantees a hundred days of wage-employment in a financial year to every rural household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. While the objectives of this scheme are laudable, the actual execution is less so. A lack of a definitive, verifiable ID has meant that the government is paying countless “ghost workers” who do not exist in reality but have been manufactured expressly to pocket the cash provided by this scheme. In fact, there is a virtual cottage industry in the number of ways you can defraud the NREGA scheme alone, certainly enough to make Bernie Madoff look like a rank amateur.

Optimizing for the Future
Operational efficiency, visibility and transparency are just as critical for sovereign entities as for enterprises.  Maximizing revenue collections and optimizing how they are invested for the future are critical tasks for both entrepreneurs and for civil servants. For most governments however, the temptation to spend their way out is a lot greater than addressing the core issues of infrastructure and plumbing to ensure that the back-office is running smoothly and citizens are being provided the services they need.

Projects involving individual identities are generally a tough sell in democratic environments and the UK recently abandoned a similar project in the face of intense public opposition. It is no different in India.  For the past couple of years, this 12-digit number has been branded as the savior of the nation, a potential Fascist tool of repression and everything in between. Public debate on the issue continues to be robust and even my generally staid Facebook stream lights up regularly with a heated discussion about this project.

After being in constitutional limbo for a while, the Unique Identification Authority of India has finally managed to prevail and is now well on its way to identifying the billion plus citizens of India. As of March 2012, about 150 Million people had been officially tagged and identified, with the project slated for completion by 2014. The next step would be to assemble the right analytical tools which, coupled with tight civil rights and privacy regulations, could put this big data, no make that downright monster data, to work and make a real difference in the lives of millions.

So, how do you fingerprint a billion? One finger at a time, and because folks who do manual labor may not have a biometrically-acceptable print, include an iris scan of both the eyes and throw in a good old fashioned photograph to create that absolutely unique ID that can be used to open a bank account, get a mobile phone, vote, and yes, also get those subsidized rations from the public distribution system.

Manju Bansal is senior director of Global E&C Solutions Marketing at SAP.