NEW DELHI — Seeking to build an identification system of unprecedented scope, India is scanning the fingerprints, eyes and faces of its 1.3 billion residents and connecting the data to everything from welfare benefits to mobile phones.
Civil libertarians are horrified, viewing the program, called Aadhaar, as Orwell’s Big Brother brought to life. To the government, it’s more like “big brother,” a term of endearment used by many Indians to address a stranger when asking for help.
For other countries, the technology could provide a model for how to track their residents. And for India’s top court, the ID system presents unique legal issues that will define what the constitutional right to privacy means in the digital age.
To Adita Jha, Aadhaar was simply a hassle. The 30-year-old environmental consultant in Delhi waited in line three times to sit in front of a computer that photographed her face, captured her fingerprints and snapped images of her irises. Three times, the data failed to upload. The fourth attempt finally worked, and she has now been added to the 1.1 billion Indians already included in the program.
The poor must scan their fingerprints at the ration shop to get their government allocations of rice. Retirees must do the same to get their pensions. Middle-school students cannot enter the water department’s annual painting contest until they submit their identification.
In some cities, newborns cannot leave the hospital until their parents sign them up. Even leprosy patients, whose illness damages their fingers and eyes, have been told they must pass fingerprint or iris scans to get their benefits.
The Modi government has also ordered Indians to link their IDs to their cellphone and bank accounts. States have added their own twists, like using the data to map where people live. Some employers use the ID for background checks on job applicants.
Although the system’s core fingerprint, iris and face database appears to have remained secure, at least 210 government websites have leaked other personal data — such as name, birth date, address, parents’ names, bank account number and Aadhaar number — for millions of Indians. Some of that data is still available with a simple Google search.
As Aadhaar has become mandatory for government benefits, parts of rural India have struggled with the internet connections necessary to make Aadhaar work. After a lifetime of manual labor, many Indians also have no readable prints, making authentication difficult. One recent study found that 20 percent of the households in Jharkand state had failed to get their food rations under Aadhaar-based verification — five times the failure rate of ration cards.