Centre for Internet & Society

Imagine a rural family of five. Mom. Dad. Two kids. And Grandma. Assume too that they are below the poverty line. The day is coming when this family will have to give its biometrics out to myriad agencies.

This article by M Rajshekhar was published in the Economic Times on June 24, 2012

You know that Nandan Nilekani's Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) or the Registrar General's National Population Register (NPR) has been collecting biometrics for a while now.

But a set of other departments have entered the fray. This ranges from the PDS department, ministry of rural development (MoRD), states' education departments, the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), banks, the department of social welfare, the post office...they are all collecting biometrics (see Agencies Collecting Biometrics Right Now).

This is the latest iteration in India's tryst with biometrics. From a beginning where only the NPR — and, a little later, the UIDAI — were to capture biometrics, we have now reached a point where myriad departments and ministries are camping in India's villages and towns, capturing fingerprints and iris images.

Identity Thieves

There was to be one large database. Now, we are moving to a system where multiple agencies capture and store biometrics data in myriad servers. This is amplifying the risk of biometric theft.

As Sunil Abraham, the head of Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society says, "If biometrics is used as authentication factor then it would be possible for a criminal to harvest your biometrics — such as using a glass to collect fingerprints — without your conscious cooperation. Or the registrar can cache your biometrics and duplicate transactions."

As the number of databases containing biometrics rises, the risk of this information leaking out increases. There have been complaints against an UIDAI enrolment agency called Madras Security Printers that it had sold data to private companies. There were also charges that enrolment agencies had outsourced the enrolment work to other companies, which they are not allowed to do.

What complicates matters further is there are not many safeguards. The country doesn't have a policy on how biometrics can be captured, used, stored and destroyed. But before we get deeper into that story, it is useful to understand why multiple departments have begun collecting biometrics.

Biometric Rush

According to a senior bureaucrat who recently retired from the ministry of planning, the answer lies in the 2014 elections. "For the government, cash transfers are the large reforms that they think UPA 2 can point towards in the next elections. For this reason, they need all this up and running before 2014."

However, over the past few months, parts of the government are increasingly unsure if UIDAI and NPR will meet their targets. "I do not think the 2014 target can be met at all," says a senior official in the National Informatics Centre (NIC). "We have to enroll another 800 million people. Then, we have to deduplicate them. Then, we have to make the cards and distribute them."

This is one reason why a set of government departments are configuring their own alternatives. Take the Department of Financial Services (DFS). It has been testing an online, biometric system for cash payments in Haryana's Mewat district for months now. Here, each bank will store its customers' biometric information in its own servers.

If a customer of bank A goes to a banking correspondent (BC) agent of bank B, his biometrics would be forwarded by bank B to bank A for authentication. Once authenticated, the transaction will be completed. "We should be rolling the new system out nationally from July or August," says the bureaucrat.

The rural development ministry is also testing its payment system. Once the local administration tells the ministry about who worked how many days, the ministry will be able to put money into their accounts automatically via a payment gateway. Right now, this is done manually with the block development officer and sarpanch making out the cheques.

This pilot, says DK Jain, joint secretary, MoRD, started 3-4 months ago in parts of Gujarat, Karnataka, Odisha and Rajasthan. In another six months, it will be available across the country. And then, there is the PDS.

Here, different states are putting different systems in place. Andhra, says a senior mandarin in the food ministry, is going with UID, Haryana is looking at smart cards, Jharkhand is going with Aadhaar, MP and Gujarat are testing food coupons, while Chhattisgarh has decided to use RSBY and Orissa has chosen NPR.

Apart from this, data is also being collected by the RSBY and BC companies on behalf of the banks handling welfare payments, or scrambling to meet their financial inclusion targets.

Sunil Abraham is quoted in this article.

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