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Aadhaar: India’s billion-person biometric database is the world’s biggest privacy experiment

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The use of social security numbers and biometric databases is not unusual these days, but there’s nothing else on the scale of what India is doing in this field. Its Aadhaar system – the name means ‘foundation’ in Hindi – aims to provide everyone in India with a randomly-generated, unique 12-digit number associated with their fingerprints and iris scans. Already, the biometric data of around 90% of India’s citizens have been gathered, and over one billion Aadhaar numbers have been issued.

The intentions are good. In a country of 1.3 billion, there are only around 65 million passport holders. That makes it hard for many – especially the poor – to establish their identity, for example when opening bank accounts or applying for government social welfare and subsidy schemes. The Aadhaar number, backed up by biometrics, is designed to help hundreds of millions of people access services more easily. The Indian government also sees Aadhaar as a valuable weapon in the fight against corruption by creating unique identifiers for every citizen that can help to catch fraud.

But there are problems. As the Times of India reported, for some people, fingerprints are not available as biometrics, because hard manual labour flattens fingerprint patterns, which also fade with age. Another issue is poor Internet connectivity in some areas, which makes confirming the identity of people by contacting the central biometric database a slow and frustrating process.

More worrying than these technical issues, which can probably be overcome, is a fundamental shift in Aadhaar’s role in Indian society. Now that most people there have an Aadhaar number, the government is trying to use it for everything – and to make it compulsory despite privacy concerns. In 2015, arguing in favor of the move, the country’s attorney general told the Indian Supreme Court:

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