Published January 18, 2013
In the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, those visiting government-subsidized shops have a new way to pay. Jharkhand is testing hand-held machines called micro-ATMs, which scan people's fingerprints to verify their identity before they do some basic banking, such as depositing or withdrawing cash.
Many micro-ATM users have never held a bank account before, or owned a smartphone or a computer. The technology is part of Aadhaar, a government-run project that has now scanned and saved data from the irises and fingerprints of more than 255 million Indians.
Aadhaar works much like U.S. Social Security numbers do. It gives every enrollee a unique 12-digit identification number and an easy way to prove his identity — basic functions that U.S. residents may take for granted, but that have been a problem in India, especially for its poorest citizens. Officials and supporters hope Aadhaar will help India's poor gain benefits while curbing theft and fraud. The country has never had such a widespread ID.
As the number of Aadhaar's enrollees approaches the population of the United States, which is just under 312 million, we at TechNewsDaily wondered if the U.S. could ever get a biometrics-based ID program. [SEE ALSO: 7 Biometric Technologies on the Horizon]
Not likely, said the experts we contacted. The United States doesn't have the same need for it that India does, and Americans are warier of privacy issues. Yet that doesn't mean U.S. agencies aren't watching Aadhaar's historic growth, gleaning lessons that they might apply to homeland security schemes in the future.
Why not in the U.S.?
One of the major goals of Aadhaar is to bring basic banking to more Indian adults. Only 35 percent of Indians age 15 and older have an account at a formal financial institution, according to the World Bank. Poorer people and women are less likely to have an account, which means they're unable earn interest and are at risk for theft.
Aadhaar's first steps toward banking won't be big. "I'm basically talking about depositing money, just taking out cash," said Ravi Bapna, a professor in the school of management at the University of Minnesota. Bapna spoke with TechNewsDaily over Skype from India, where he had taken his graduate students to meet Aadhaar chairman Nandan Nilekani and learn about the program.
"We're not talking about loans, we're not talking about mortgages, we're not talking about insurance products," Bapna said. Such services will come in the future, he added.
In addition, the Indian government hopes that Aadhaar-enabled bank accounts will allow for the direct deposit of benefits, such as scholarships and food subsidies. Right now, such benefits reach people through middlemen who often take cuts illegally. Many experts have called India's benefits programs "broken."
The United States doesn't have problems of comparable severity. Eighty-eight percent of Americans ages 15 and older have bank accounts, the vast majority of Americans of all ages have Social Security numbers, and benefits fraud isn't as widespread.
Bapna and Rajesh Mashruwala, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who previously volunteered as a consultant to Aadhaar, also think that a program like Aadhaar would be politically impossible in the United States.
"The sense of privacy [that the United States has] is different compared to the sense of privacy that emerging countries have," Mashruwala said.
One way to think of it is that Indians have decided that this type of development is more important than privacy, Bapna said. "That's the tradeoff that the general populace has made."
Not everyone in India agrees that it's a worthwhile tradeoff. Economist R. Ramakumar has been a vocal opponent, publishing op-eds criticizing the project in national newspapers since 2009. He sees Aadhaar as a violation of civil liberties because Indian states — including Maharashta, home of Mumbai, where he lives — have passed orders that make enrolling in Aadhaar virtually compulsory. He cited orders that those without Aadhaar ID numbers can't draw their salaries or receive their government scholarships.
Aadhaar is supposed to be voluntary, according to the Indian government. "It's a violation of a promise that the government gave to its people," Ramakumar told TechNewsDaily during a Skype call.
In addition, there are no laws in place that specify who may get Aadhaar data and under what circumstances. A recent bill with a provision for oversight to Aadhaar access did not pass parliament. "There is no regulation which allows or prevents sharing of this database with police or other agencies. It's a completely unregulated area," Ramakumar said.
There's even a black market that's sprung up in Mumbai, where poor vendors sell people's Aadhaar-gathered biometric data, Ramakumar said.
Lessons for the United States
While it may not have an Aadhaar, the United States does have a digital database of fingerprints and machine-recognizable photos for tens of thousands of people. The database is called US-VISIT, short for the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology. US-VISIT tracks immigrants, foreign visitors and naturalized citizens. Aadhaar actually uses specifications for fingerprint technology provided by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
US-VISIT was once the world's largest biometrics database, but Aadhaar has now overtaken it in size and sophistication, as Aadhaar includes iris scans, a more modern technology.
In some U.S. states, those applying for driver's licenses must submit digital fingerprints, though no one's done anything with that data yet, Mashruwala said. Biometrics technology is also creeping into privately made products in the U.S., such as cellphones and tablets that recognize owners' fingerprints.
So biometrics in the U.S. won't look quite like biometrics in India, but it's still coming. And U.S. agencies are talking with their Indian counterparts to learn how to gather and process so many people so quickly, Mashruwala said. US-VISIT collected data from about 70 million people over the course of 13 years, he said. Aadhaar did the same in less than one year.
American agencies are also interested in seeing how Aadhaar's iris scans work out.
"The U.S. is waiting for someone else to be the first," Mashruwala said.