As the astonishingly ambitious project of giving unique identifying numbers to all residents of India has gathered pace, the question of whether similar systems could or should be implemented elsewhere naturally arises. Although population registries have been created in numerous states around the world, the Aadhaar project’s complexity and scale make it almost uniquely ambitious.
Essentially, the aim of India’s biometric identity project is to make government and bureaucracy more efficient in their delivery of essential services and benefits to the country’s population. It has even been suggested by Paul Romer, the World Bank’s chief economist, that a standardized biometric identity system resembling Aadhaar would yield great benefits if implemented all around the world. Is he right? Let’s take a look at some basic facts that might help to resolve this question.
Learning from Aadhaar
It might be good to begin by considering a vital issue that arises when biometric identity and security systems are implemented on a vast scale. Some human rights advocates have highlighted the danger that biometric data might get into the wrong hands and be misused. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the body created to oversee the roll-out of the Aadhaar system across India, maintains, however, that the central database holding the biometric data gathered as part of the Aadhaar registration process has never been subject to a security breach. In any event, such concerns don’t seem to have deterred other countries from considering a similar model of biometric identification. UIDAI Chairperson R.S. Sharma believes that the speed at which the roll-out of Aadhaar in India has taken place strongly indicates that similar projects could also be implemented very quickly in other countries. And indeed, he points out that the Bank of Russia, for instance, has already begun exploring the possibility of implementing an Aadhaar-like biometric identification system.
Economic Progress Driven by Technological Innovation
According to Sharma, the World Bank also envisages the implementation of similar biometric identity projects in the Maghreb region of Africa, which includes Tunisia and Algeria. In its 2016 report on global development, the World Bank commended Aadhaar as an example of how economic progress can be driven by technological change. Another authority in this field, Krishnan Dharmarajan, who is the executive director of the Centre for Digital Financial Inclusion, has pointed out that any problems that India has encountered during its roll-out of Aadhaar should not be considered as an obstacle by any other country seeking to implement a similarly ambitious project, but as an opportunity to learn and improve the existing implementation system.
Quite simply, the solutions that India has found to the problems that arose during the Aadhaar roll-out should provide other countries facing similar challenges in the future with useful strategies that can be implemented from the beginning. As R.S. Sharma observed, if India can reach the stage where it can provide one million people with digital identity each day, then other countries should also be able to do so.