The Indian Government is in the midst of rolling out the world’s largest biometric identity project. The exercise—conceptualised and steered in its present form by Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani—targets the generation of unique biometric IDs for more than a billion Indians.
Called Aadhaar (foundation), this multi-billion dollar exercise has been projected mostly as an effort to ensure better targeting of beneficiaries for various government schemes and subsidies. Cash transfers are one example. In some pilot programmes, residents are already collecting their subsidies for cooking gas cylinders via cash transfers and paying the market price at the dealership.
But a biometric ID aka Aadhaar will have many more applications and not all are necessarily connected to cash transfers, small ticket bank transactions or bottom-of-the-pyramid initiatives. This is partly to do with the design of Aadhaar itself. The idea was to create an identity ecosystem on top of which applications could be built, almost like the entire app universe that got created thanks to the iPhone or iPad. Or more appropriately, the global positioning system (GPS).
Now, over Over 650 million such unique IDs have already been issued by the state-run Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in the last three years and enrolments are still going on. Each biometric ID comprises 10 fingerprints, two retina scans and basic demographic data. If you were to add up these pieces, they ensure a pretty solid lock on an individual.
This makes a whole lot of other interesting applications possible. For some of these, preliminary work has already been done.
A beta variation of this is already running in the United Kingdom for frequent travellers—at Heathrow and Gatwick airports. The idea is simple. If you are identifiable and verifiable quickly, then you don’t need to go through long lines and stamping processes. After all, it’s only about who you are. What you can do is either known or can’t be predicted.
The way it could work—a quick retina scan and you are through. Particularly at entry point. Because the system could be connected to the Aadhaar database and is able to match your retina with that on the database. Remember, a biometric lock is better than verifying a paper document which you carry with you. This could also be linked to the next application, which is easier entry into airports in general.
When you walk through India’s domestic airports, you are checked multiple times before you actually board the aircraft. One reason is what you are carrying. Second, to verify who you are and whether you are who you claim to be.
And that begins right at the entrance to the terminal. Where Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) staffers compare your e-ticket, printed or on a smartphone/tablet to a government-issued ID card. This is where you see bottlenecks with passengers struggling to balance luggage, wallet and toddlers to produce tickets and id.
Imagine if you could use your finger. Key in your UID and then use your fingerprint or iris scan. The system at the back-end connects to the airline reservation system and authenticates. For this, you ought to have entered the Aadhaar number at the time of reservation.
You could repeat the process at the boarding gate where again there is often a question mark on whether it is the right person boarding the aircraft. A biometric authentication will smoothen the process.
Some of this might sound complex but it’s not. Data packets in credit card transactions often go through more hoops and loops and it still takes only a few seconds in all. System integration can be a challenge but the Aadhaar system is built to connect in a way that it does not share data but can authenticate queries that ping it.
We talked about transactions where the UID would help a poor beneficiary. Let’s look at the other end of the spectrum. Imagine you visit your favourite white goods store and want to buy that new 55” LED TV.
You know your credit card has the limit or close to it so you go the cashier and swipe. To your shock, the transaction does not go through. But it hasn’t been declined either. Instead, there is a message asking you to contact the issuing credit card company helpline.
Why is this happening ? Well, the system cannot fully trust transactions above a certain amount at one go. The risk is too high for the bank to authorise. In any case, now you have a Personal Identification Number (PIN) which adds another factor to the transaction. But for a more solid lock, you could have a biometric ID authentication at the point of sale (POS) terminal as well. The backend already exists. And a biometric scanner will add maybe $50 to the POS terminal. This will go a long way in preventing credit card fraud and theft.
Now let’s come to cash. ATM machines already make you insert a card and ask you for a PIN before disbursing cash. But here’s the deal. Regardless of how much money you have in your bank account, the ATM will only go upto a maximum of say Rs50,000. There are two reasons for this. The first is cash management. The second is risk. Once again, the banking system cannot trust an open transaction beyond a certain limit.
A biometric ID could add the third factor here. And the bank could issue a greater credit limit to cards when combined with a biometric check. This has already been pilot-tested in India. Eventually it is quite possible that a transaction could be done without a debit or credit card and only with a PIN, UID and fingerprint.
If you can link your online transactions to your biometric id, you could do a host of things faster and easier than you can today. An authentication app can help verify your online presence as genuine. This can help create accounts others can trust on dating and matrimonial websites, eBay, and on Twitter or FaceBook.
Over a period of time, on websites such as eBay or AirBnb, your reputation grows and that can itself become an asset. There is no real reputation based system today which allows quick authentication and linkages to other products and services.
Admittedly, this might not enthuse everyone. But I know a lot of parents who will be more comfortable if their children are interacting with authenticated individuals as opposed to unknown elements.