When the ticketing website of the vast Indian Railways reported the theft of personal data from millions of customers in May it exposed the kind of nightmarish scenario being portrayed by those opposing Aadhaar: a project to biometrically identify all Indian citizens and place them on a national database.
With other national biometric identity projects having stalled or been dropped, the progress and pitfalls of India’s are likely to be watched with interest by governments around the world.
To be sure, Aadhaar has benefits. Already the system is being used to check late arrival and absenteeism among government employees. Aadhaar is now linked to everything from mobile phone SIM cards to passports and voter identification rolls. In March 2015, the government introduced the Aadhaar-linked DigiLocker service. This allows personal documents to be stored on the cloud and made accessible when required, say for passport applications. Aadhaar has helped stop the fraudulent withdrawal of pension funds by people representing hundreds of beneficiaries who died years ago.
The main objections to Aadhaar are no different from those that have come up in other countries and relate to privacy. In the United Kingdom, plans to issue biometric national identity cards were dropped in January 2011 and there has been enough opposition in the United States to slow down implementation of the Real ID scheme.