The Indian government is ramping up efforts
to fingerprint and iris scan the entirety of its 1.2 billion
citizens in an ambitious scheme to issue national ID cards with
biometric details. The plan has so far already enrolled 110 million
people and issued 60 million numbers, with the aim of enrolling 200
million by this March and 600 million by 2014.
The project stems from two separate, overlapping schemes, the Unique
Identifcation program (UID), aimed at
providing India's 200 million poorest citizens with failsafe access
to the country's welfare system, and the National Population
Register (NPR), aimed at providing a national ID card to help
identify and deport undocumented immigrants.
Last month, the UID plan hit a roadblock when a Parliamentary
committee issued a blistering attack on the scheme, calling it
"directionless" and "full of uncertainty,"
while critics note the danger of the project
in the absence of coherent privacy laws. Just how the government
will use the information, or even who will have access to it, has
yet to be properly determined.
Although fast becoming the largest such database in the
world, it is not the only government-administered repository of
biometric details. Nations across the globe are increasingly turning
to the collection of biometric information under a host of programs,
including proposed national id schemes like the one being
implemented in India.
Presented as a way of streamlining and standardizing entry and exit
procedures at national borders,
what the public is not told is that these documents are the end
result of a years-long process of coordination that has codified the
technical specifications for these systems via international
agreements. In addition, countries are increasingly agreeing on an
infrastructure for sharing their biometric databases between each
other via database sharing agreements that have received scant
Governments around the world are eager to tout the potential
benefits of these national identification registers in glossy
promotional videos depicting gleaming science-fiction-like future
societies of efficiency, however the privacy and civil liberties
implications of this technology are seldom discussed.