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UID in India: 'A number that walks with you'

14 September 2009

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Chairman of Unique Identification Authority in India Nandan Nilekani says the project has many significant benefits for the poor. Despite risks of hacking and possible misuse, it gives them a chance to participate in the country’s progress.

New Delhi: There is “legitimate concern” about the security of the unique identification number’s database, head of the ambitious project Nandan Nilekani has said.

Nandan Nilekani.jpg
Image Credits: The Hindu/ Chairman of Unique Identification Authority Nandan Nilekani

“That is a very legitimate concern. We are looking at the design as to how to make it secure,” Nilekani, the chairman of Unique Identification Authority of India, told Karan Thapar in his Devil’s Advocate programme on the CNN-IBN [To read the full text of the interview, please click here].

He was asked how it could be ensured that the database would not be misused and result in an invasion of privacy.

On possible misuse by hackers, he said that in every system there would be people who would try to hack on it. “Some are impenetrable, some are not. We will have to design it as good as possible. We can certainly create checks and balances. The important thing is — is the risk of hacking and privacy large enough not to do this project?

The project had so many significant benefits for the poor in making it inclusive and in giving them a chance to participate in the country’s progress that it was worth it, he said. “We have to mitigate those risks.”

“We are not keeping any profiling attributes in our database”

Asked about the system, which in the wrong hands could be a powerful tool for religious or caste profiling, he said: “We are not keeping any profiling attributes in our database.”

On the issue of technology, Nilekani said: “There is no question that this is a project where we are going into uncharted territories, the technological challenges are immense and one of the risks of this project is technology.”

However, the inclusivity that this project would provide for the 700 million people in this country who were outside the system was immense enough to justify doing it, he said.

When pointed that the national insurance in Britain [which Nilekani compared the UID to] had been around and developing slowly but didn’t have details that could lead to an invasion of privacy or be misused for profiling, he said:

“These are legitimate concerns and I think we have to address them in the public as well as in the laws and so on.”


However, he said, there was no other country in the world where a billion peoples’ biometrics were captured and stored in an online database.

“In that sense, it has not been done before. We don’t have to invent the technology but we have to scale up the existing technology to work at this scale. It’s not a reinvention but a scaling up.”

Asked whether the project’s cost (estimated to be around Rs 1.5 lakh crore by the Frontline magazine) was justified based on London School of Economics’ analysis of a similar venture mulled over by the British government (projected to be between £10 billion and £20 billion), Nilekani said the cost won’t be as high as the figures being talked about.

“I don’t agree with that estimate. I don’t know what the exact figure is but it is much less than that by a factor of 10,” he said. It was a guess but it was an informed and educated guess, he said.

“We don’t know what the cost will be but I am very confident that whatever the cost is, the social, economic and efficiency benefits of it would make it well worth it.”

Asked if the money to be spent on the project could be better used for education, health for women and children and sanitation programmes, he said, the investment in this project would actually make all those other money be spent more efficiently.

“Think of it as an infrastructure for enabling you to spend money more effectively,” he said.

It’s a number

Nilekani says it’s a number, not a card, and the number walks with you.

“The UID project is really for the huge number of people who are outside the system. For the poor, this is a huge benefit because they have no identity, no birth certificates, degree certificates, driver’s licence, passport, no address. There are 75 million homeless people in this country, 75 million tribals. So if we are able to help them get the number then we can actually empower them,” Nilekani says.

He is in a hurry because “the next 12-18 months are very critical in getting this project off the ground,” by when the first set of identity numbers will be issued.

If all goes well, five years from now the UID database will cover a few hundred million people. Several countries have card or number systems for their citizens but not on the scale contemplated in India – a billion people in one database with biometric information.

The story has been collated from the Press Trust of India and Business Standard.

Source : The Hindu

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