biometric fingerprint (whiteMocca/

Big-time biometrics: India's Aadhaar project

Biometric identification is just ramping up in the U.S. as agencies use fingerprint, iris or face scanners to identify international travelers. But in India, the government is well on its way to enrolling its 1.3 billion residents in a biometric ID program that could transform how citizens, governments and businesses interact.

India's Aadhaar project is a huge national effort that aims to assign 12-digit random numbers  to the country's residents and tie those numbers to demographic data and biometric identifiers such as  iris or fingerprint scans  The government wants everyone over the age of five, as well as those living in the country for more than 180 days, to be included in the database.

About 85 percent, or about 1 billion people, have already been a unique "Aadhaar number," according to a new report by independent researcher IDInsight. That's a significant accomplishment for a country where birth records can be scant and more than half the population lives in rural areas.

The program, said Ronald Abraham, partner and Asia director for IDInsight, has helped the country get more government money into the hands of intended recipients, sped up some public and private economic development efforts and helped make other federal databases eliminate duplicate data.

The program began in 2010 and has been making strides in registering people and collecting biometric data to pair with that data, but the government hasn't been able to get firm, reliable information on how all that data is being used.

U.S. federal agencies should note the project's effort to seamlessly integrate many of India's federal databases, Abraham said in a short interview after a presentation at the Center for Global Development.

One ongoing issue Abraham flagged is the Indian government's lag in keeping "evidence-based" data on how the system is used and by whom. That kind of information is crucial to keeping the massive government-backed IT project rolling effectively, he said.

IDInsight published the first in what the research entity hopes is an ongoing series on the project. The "State of Aadhaar Report 2016-17," takes stock of uses cases and intricate details of the legal and government framework as well as emerging uses.

For instance, Abraham said, it's unclear how many people have used the system to open a bank account, which was one of its intended purposes, or its capabilities as a third-party verification source for transactions, not to mention how it facilitates government subsidy payments to individuals.

Cybersecurity is also an emerging issue, especially as cyber thieves figure out how to game the system or successfully duplicate fingerprints and iris scans, according to Abraham. Currently, the system stores biometric data offline; encrypts data transfer; gives access to data only through a strict template and allows users to "lock" their data. All of those are good precautions, he said, but the government doesn't know much about how effective those precautions are.

As the project moves ahead, Abraham said, that kind of detailed data is critical, as it paves the way for the sprawling project's future effectiveness and relevance.

This article first appeared on FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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