Aadhaar and Beyond

It's 12 digits long, comes on a card, and sits in 99 percent of adult Indian pockets. Aadhaar, the Indian digital identity project, has existed since 2010. Today, more than 1.2 billion Indian residents carry the card.

The national identity scheme is an interesting case study for other governments. Countries interested in increasing efficiency using ID cards can learn from Aadhaar and other national projects, refining their systems and making them palatable for citizens.

Aadhaar's Use of Biometrics

Operated by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Aadhaar assigns a unique, random number to a card holder. The number itself doesn't hold any sensitive demographic profiling information. Instead, it is an identifier for information residing in a centralized database, which includes demographic data, along with three types of biometric information: facial images, fingerprints and iris scans.

By collecting three different biometric modalities, the government can dramatically reduce the likelihood of false positives or negatives. A service provider can use more biometric data types to authenticate someone as the service that they are accessing becomes more sensitive.

Aadhaar card holders can use their numbers for online or in-person verification, depending on the service that they are accessing.

Use cases vary, but many of them fall under the banner of ID fraud prevention. Increasingly, citizens in India and elsewhere must present some form of ID when accessing government services, such as benefits.

Applications for Other Nations

Benefit fraud is big business, affecting areas ranging from pensions to housing benefits. In the United Kingdom, the most recent figures, covering April 2015 to March 2016, show that fraud accounted for the lion's share of a £3.3 billion annual overpayment bill.

In the United States, Department of Labor statistics show rates of improper payment for Unemployment Insurance topping 14 percent in 12 of the 50 states. Only three states saw overpayment rates below 6 percent. Governments are leaving a lot of money on the table by not using biometric information to verify claimants properly.

Fraudsters are also known to use fake ID information to collect tax refund money that governments do not really owe them. In the U.S., tax refund fraud hit $21 billion in 2015, due to the weak proof required to file a return and collect the refund check. Biometrically protected cards, combined with online verification, could go some way toward stopping this.



There are other applications beyond reducing fraud. Linked with the correct data, digital identity cards could be a useful form of information for healthcare professionals. Plugging in a card to retrieve the holder's necessary information could quickly and easily enable medical professionals to administer appropriate and timely care in critical situations.

One potential benefit of biometrically-enhanced ID documents for citizens are as platforms for developing a range of convenient services. For example, Aadhaar is already morphing into a payments platform enabling merchants and customers to transact directly on smartphones that scan the customer's fingerprint. This avoids the service charges seen with conventional debit and credit cards.

Biometric ID cards can make it easier to prove identity in any situation where an individual must provide their identity to access a product or service of value. It can help to speed up access to government services ranging from education and training to family and social services, while ensuring that they are more secure. Presenting a card with biometric data could help citizens to access health insurance information, open a bank account or register a car.

Solutions for an Identity-Driven World

Completing personal transactions increasingly depends on positive identification, but traditional forms of ID can be stolen or forged. Biometric matching — verifying a person’s identity through unique biological characteristics such as fingerprint, face or iris – provides more reliable identification than traditional documents.

  • Aadhaar and Beyond Infographic

After an initial enrollment and biometric scan, anyone can unquestionably prove their identity with a touch of the finger or a glance at a sensor. Low implementation costs make this convenience attractive to a wide range of government and commercial identity-driven services.

Building Safe, Citizen-Focused ID Systems

Governments can encourage citizens to use the card by focusing on its benefits rather than being overly prescriptive.

One critique of Aadhaar focuses on government agencies giving citizens no choice but to enroll in the system to receive benefits. Critics worry that this practice discourages some people from registering, and that connectivity errors can hinder attempts to enroll for the program or collect benefits. They also argue that mandatory enrollment violates an interim order passed by the Indian Supreme Court that enrollment in the system cannot be made mandatory. Building and enforcing consistent policies around ID card use can help avoid such problems.

ID card programs must also consider privacy and security. Cardholders will want to prove their identities using their cards without worrying about external parties tracking them. Privacy by design – the idea of hardwiring privacy into systems from the ground up – will be the law in Europe when the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force.

ID systems can serve as a proof of identity while also protecting privacy. More than 100 countries already hold at least a digital face image in a chip embedded in passports. Border guards then evaluate the face of the person standing before them against the face contained on the passport chip.

Designing Biometric ID Systems for Acceptance

Biometric systems in everyday life aren't so new; governments around the world already use the technology to help identify citizens to some degree. Anyone with a modern cellphone may find themselves using biometrics to log in (such as Apple's Touch ID fingerprint scanner, for example) and access their most sensitive data, much of which they also share with cloud-based services.

If systems put the citizen's comfort and confidence first, biometric-enhanced national ID systems can reduce the friction involved in offering products and services, while saving money and effort for both public and private sector service providers.

With a little more than one in six of the world's entire population using Aadhaar, the idea has long since evolved past the proof of concept stage.