Biometrics for Aadhaar reflects a lack of social trust and law enforcement

As far as I’m concerned, the primary purpose of Aadhaar is for targeting subsidies. Right now we have a regime where subsidies are targeted on a household basis, which is incorrect and inefficient. What we need is a methodology to target subsidies to individuals, and for this purpose, we need a way to uniquely identify individuals.

Hence, we need a unique identification mechanism. The problem with existing IDs, such as the passport, driving licence and permanent account number (PAN) is that there is no guarantee of de-duplication. There is nothing that prevents one individual to hold multiple of these – though it might be illegal to do so. There is no formal mechanism of de-duplication in any of these – and the rather unstructured form of Indian names and addresses means that it is going to be extremely difficult to weed out duplicates of these at scale.

This is only my conjecture, but this might be the reason why the government decided to create a completely new ID, which one could obtain only if one were to give their biometric details. The argument here is that biometrics uniquely identify a person, though there are counterarguments to this which argue that it is possible in extremely rare cases (which is not rare enough, given India’s size) for two people to have biometrics that are considered identical by the de-duplication system.

India is not the only country to have aspired to issue a unique identity card for its residents. What sets India apart is the size and the fact that sharing of biometrics with the issuing agency is a necessary condition for issuing the ID card. That we have to resort to a system based on biometrics is a reflection of both the lack of social trust and the lack of law enforcement in India. That we have lack of social trust is indicated by the fact that people aspire to hold more than one “unique identity proof” – such as a PAN or a driving license or a passport. That we have weak law enforcement is indicated by the fact that existing punishments for holding duplicate IDs is not deterrent enough for people who aspire to hold multiple cards.

It can be argued that using biometrics to ensure that each resident has only one ID is an engineer’s solution to a policy problem. It is an admission of the fact that our legal enforcement is too weak to enforce unique IDs without a technological basis. It is sad that we had to go down this route without exploring policy solutions first (or maybe we did, and they didn’t go anywhere).

2 thoughts on “Biometrics for Aadhaar reflects a lack of social trust and law enforcement”

  1. ” There is nothing that prevents one individual to hold multiple of these – though it might be illegal to do so. There is no formal mechanism of de-duplication in any of these”

    This is factually wrong — deduplication is a crucial part of aadhar registration, which is why a temporary number is initially given as a placeholder before the permanent aadhar number is issued. This is explained in detail in the UIDAI website.

    “it is possible in extremely rare cases (which is not rare enough, given India’s size) for two people to have biometrics that are considered identical by the de-duplication system.”

    This is also incorrect — the combined error rates for 10 digits and 2 irises is low enough to suffice for the UID, even with a population of 1.2 billion (and then some). The de-duplication stage of Aadhar issuance can give rise to false positives, but they are verified via other information provided in the form, which includes the photograph and address.
    This is manually verified by UIDAI employees for new applications that have a match for an existing entry in the database. Iris matches have an error rate of 1 in ~190,000 matches per iris.

    There is a reason why tall claims of people getting multiple UIDAI cards has never been proven — many people who have made such claims have failed to back it up by actually providing two cards issued to the same person. Biometric identification is considered good enough for criminal justice systems and immigration systems in countries around the world for a reason.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Srikanth.

      I meant that there was no formal dedup mechanism for the existing IDs – like DL or Passport. And because of that people end up holding multiple of these. I agree that Aadhaar corrects this problem.

      And I agree with your other point about the combination of biometrics and other demographic data to together be used to uniquely identify people. I just happpened to mention a point made by Aadhaar opponents, that’s all!

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