The project, which seeks to collect fingerprint and iris scans from all residents and store them in a massive central database of unique IDs, is considered by many specialists the most technologically and logistically complex national identification effort ever attempted. To pull it off, India has recruited tech gurus of Indian origin from around the world, including the co-founder of online photo service Snapfish and employees from Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Intel Corp.
The country's leaders are pinning their hopes on the program to solve development problems that have persisted despite fast economic growth. They say unique ID numbers will help ensure that government welfare spending reaches the right people, and will allow hundreds of millions of poor Indians to access services like banking for the first time.
Critics question whether the project can have as big an impact as its backers promise, given that identity fraud is but one contributor to India's development struggles. Civil-liberties groups say the government is collecting too much personal information without sufficient safeguards. The technology requires transferring large amounts of data between the hinterland and an urban database, leading some to question whether the system will succumb to India's rickety Internet infrastructure.
An ambitious national ID program in India is using sophisticated biometric technology to register the country's 1.2 billion citizens. WSJ's Amol Sharma reports.
The sign-up effort is already under way in a handful of districts, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to kick off nationwide enrollment Wednesday. The government hopes to issue the first 100 million unique ID numbers by March and 600 million within four years. The undertaking is the latest chance for India to show it can pull off a massive project after what is widely viewed as its mishandling of next week's Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, where infrastructure and hygiene issues led some nations to threaten withdrawing.
To lead the program, Mr. Singh picked Nandan Nilekani, former CEO of Infosys Technologies Ltd., which helped pioneer India's low-cost offshore model of technology services. A native of Bangalore, India's tech hub, and son of a textile-mill manager, the 55-year-old billionaire is trying to infuse some of Infosys's efficiency into a lumbering bureaucracy.
"You have a whole mass of people who are shut out of society," Mr. Nilekani says. "A lack of identity is a big source of exclusion. You're giving them a key to social services."
In one early registration drive in Nagaram, a village 30 miles outside the southern city of Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh state, dozens of people were streaming into a drab government office one recent afternoon to have their fingerprints taken and irises scanned. Many applicants, who ranged from vegetable and rice farmers to real-estate brokers and shopkeepers, had never used a computer much less seen biometric equipment. Local officials had knocked on their doors the night before to tell them about the program.
Salekula Anjaiah, a 44-year-old farmer who earns about $40 per month for his family of five, said he hoped the IDs would keep people from cheating the welfare system and getting food rations they don't qualify for. "It will take fraud out of the government schemes," said Mr. Anjaiah, who relies on subsidies to feed his family. "Then it will be guaranteed I get what I deserve."
India has been attempting to improve governance through technology for two decades. Programs have digitized land records, created Web portals for government agencies and computerized tax filing systems. But the unique ID program, dubbed "Aadhaar," or "foundation" in Hindi, is by far the largest and most ambitious effort. Many countries have some form of national ID and a handful use biometrics, but none come close to matching the scale of what India is attempting.
Access thousands of business sources not available on the free web. Learn More
Mr. Nilekani started recruiting Indians in the global technology industry in the summer of 2009. These early recruits included Srikanth Nadhamuni, who had spent 16 years as a technology engineer for companies like Sun Microsystems and Intel.
Word spread in Silicon Valley that Mr. Nilekani wanted help, and by the fall a few others arrived in Bangalore.
The team rented an apartment at a gated community on the eastern outskirts of the city to use as an office. Everyone worked for free.
The group worked in the living room. They bought a few tables, two whiteboards and some markers. For food, they went to Mr. Nadhamuni's house nearby, where his wife served rice cakes, lentil crepes and lemon rice. Visitors had to use a wooden shoe rack as a bench since there weren't enough chairs.
The team came up with a plan to capture a mix of biometric information—digital photos, fingerprints and iris scans—as well as names, addresses, genders and dates of birth. Since they knew they wouldn't have a second chance to collect the data, the engineers say they erred on getting too much information, including all 10 fingerprints instead of just one. The government would issue the random 12-digit numbers by mail. Passports, driver's licenses, ration cards and government health-insurance cards could either have the numbers printed on them or embedded electronically.
Project head Nandan Nilekani says 'a lack of identity is a big source of exclusion' in India today.
That still left a major hurdle: How to verify that a number and a person actually match? Retailers, like banks and cell-phone companies, could install fingerprint readers and match the data over the Internet. But getting readers and Internet access to the 500,000, often remote locations where subsidized food is distributed to the poor would be costly and impractical.
The Indian government is expected to spend as much as $250 billion over five years on programs aimed at the poor, including subsidies for food, diesel, fertilizer and jobs. But 40% of the benefits, as the system now stands, will go to the wrong people or to "ghosts" with fake identification papers, according to a report by brokerage firm CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. Today's ration cards, for example, are issued on paper, and are relatively easy to forge or doctor.
In November 2009, Mr. Nilekani wrote to tech companies such as Intel, Google, Oracle Corp. and Yahoo, asking them to send Indian-origin engineers to contribute to the cause, either on paid sabbatical or as volunteers. More than 20 people joined the effort.
The government has approved about $670 million for the project so far, and the entire cost will likely be "several billion dollars," says Mr. Nilekani.
By early this year, the Bangalore team moved into a real office at a technology park. Mr. Nilekani became a traveling salesman for the project, taking a PowerPoint presentation on the road and making the case for unique IDs with government agencies and regulators across the country.
In his pitch, Mr. Nilekani focused in part on reducing fraud, but also on the potential for bringing into the financial system the roughly two-thirds of Indian adults who don't have bank accounts. The poor often have few or no documents to prove who they are or where they live. The unique ID would solve that problem, says Mr. Nilekani, and could be linked to banks' plans to offer "no-frills" accounts, with no minimum balance and low fees, as well as nascent money-transfer services via mobile phones.
Scanning the World
India's unique ID program is the largest and most logistically challenging identification project in the world. A look at other such schemes.
Now issues paper ID cards, but plans to replace with electronic cards embedded with fingerprints and a six-digit PIN number that can be used to digitally sign forms.
Creating a national database with biometric data on citizens. Government hopes that 100 million out of 150 million Nigerians will be issued a unique ID card in three years.
National ID cards were issued in 2002, partly to encourage unity following ethnic strife. The technology involves a bar code, a single fingerprint and a photograph. About 2.5 million IDs had been issued as of May.
Smart cards hold personal data and a thumbprint, and can be used to pay road tolls and access ATM machines.
One objective of smart-card program is to track immigrants, including workers from Pakistan, Iran, India and elsewhere.
The US-VISIT program collects digital fingerprints and photos from foreign travelers as a way to keep immigration violators and criminals from entering the country. It has over 100 million records.
Source: CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets; WSJ Research
In the village of Nagaram, officials say they have been signing up 200 people per day, and as of early September, had made it through half of the 4,500 residents. The goal is for hundreds of villages and towns in Andhra Pradesh to start enrollment soon, and to reach 30 million people state-wide by the end of the year.
Signing up is technically voluntary, but any government agency or company will be allowed to require a unique ID as identity proof, an approach critics say amounts to a de facto mandate for people to enroll.
The process is slow going, taking anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes per person. Capturing iris scans with binocular-like devices is tricky and can take several minutes.
Administrators had to hold one elderly man's eyelids open to get a good image.
In addition to biometrics, residents provided an array of personal information, including their caste, religion and cellphone number. State agencies and companies who register people can gather whatever information they deem appropriate.
Such vast data gathering rankles privacy advocates who say demographic details can potentially be used to discriminate in the services that companies offer customers or government agencies offer citizens.
Another concern is that marketers will find ways to build profiles of people based on how they use their IDs—tracking where people bank, which hospitals they have checked into and who their cellphone providers are, for example.
"You will basically be creating these wonderful resources for people to mine," says Sudhir Krishnaswamy, a law professor at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata.
Mr. Nilekani says he has drafted legislation to address the concerns of critics. Under the bill, which has been approved by India's cabinet but must still be passed by parliament, the government would have to ensure that the information it collects "is secured and protected against any loss or unauthorized access." Anyone who discloses private information or hacks into the ID database would face up to three years in prison and stiff fines. Mr. Nilekani said India also needs a broader privacy law.
Andhra Pradesh officials say early data already show how unique IDs could reduce corruption at the state's 43,000 ration shops, which distribute subsidized food to the poor.
At one shop, records showed rations were being delivered to 330 families, but after the IDs were rolled out, only 203 families claimed benefits by placing their finger on a scanner at the shop. State officials suspect the shop owner had been making up fake accounts to divert some of the food into the black market.
Jejjayila Venkatesh, a 35-year-old Nagaram resident who earns $50 a month in a local government job, said he isn't concerned about privacy. He just hopes the ID will help him open a bank account and get a driver's license, which he has had difficulty obtaining thus far, and maintain his benefits when he goes out of state for work: "This will help me prove my identity wherever I roam."