India's unique identity numbers, which will contain information such as names and date of birth, have raised fears that data protection rights might be abused.
Over the next three years, 60 percent of India's 1.2-billion strong population will have been issued unique identity numbers
The project to give India's population of 1.2 billion unique identity numbers (UID), is aimed at establishing citizenship, reducing identity-related fraud, addressing security issues and preventing leakages in different government schemes.
Currently, only 1,500 individuals from a small village called Tembhili in Maharashtra have UIDs but when the scheme is completed, India will be the country with the largest database of information about its citizens in the world.
Armed with fingerprinting machines, iris scanners and cameras, officials have fanned out across India’s towns and villages to give every citizen a lifelong 12-digit unique ID number.
Nandan Nilekani is the chairman of the Unique Identification Authority
UIDs could lead to lack of privacy
However, there is increasing concern that the UIDs could lead to a loss of privacy.
"It does not at all account for the problems that we expect to have, like surveillance, profiling, identity theft. The fact that you have all the data in one central registry could lead to a lot of problems and a changing relationship between the state and the people," says Usha Ramanatham, a prominent legal expert.
However, economic analyst M. K Venu says the project’s foremost priority is to identify target groups for various government programmes: "The UID essentially is aimed at providing identities to the very poor, which number about 600 million.
"The government spends over $100 billion annually in delivering various social welfare programmes for them. And it is very important that these people have an identity. The primary importance of the UID in India is to bring 600 million people out of poverty, by targeting them in a transparent manner."
Technology will tag everybody and everything
Ramanathan is still not convinced and says "technology has brought all these problems in. UIDs will tag every person, the GPS system will tag every place and a public information and infrastructure system will tag every institution. That’s the kind of invasion of privacy that we are actually being told will happen."
Eventually, paper identity cards will be replaced with biometric plastic IDs
The head of the Unique Identification Project is Nandan Nilekani, a former CEO of Infosys Technologies, the flagship of India's information technology sector. In 2009, he was listed by Time Magazine among the world's 100 most influential people.
"This concern is limited to the well-off class in India for whom this is a privacy issue," argues Venu. "Whereas for the 600-700 million people who do not have enough to eat, who do not have shelter, who do not have clothing, this is not a privacy issue at all. They want to be recognized by the state for the delivery of these social welfare programmes."
The project plans to cover 60 percent of India's citizens over the next three years.
Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Anne Thomas