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India has embarked on an ambitious new program to provide its citizens and residents a unique, official identity. The UID (Universal ID) program aims to improve the delivery of government services, reduce fraud and corruption, facilitate robust voting processes, and improve security. It is by far the largest application of biometric identification technology to date and will have far-reaching implications for other developing countries that are looking to adopt national ID programs to further social and economic development. This paper discusses the evolution of the UID program, the innovative organization and pathbreaking technology behind it, how it is being rolled out, and how robust ID is beginning to be used.
The paper also draws lessons for other countries. Unlike many “legacy” national ID programs, the UID is designed from the ground up to support authentication. Its use of multimodal biometrics increases inclusion into the main enrollment database and has a huge impact in improving accuracy. It relies on mobile technology, but has also become a driving force behind the development of that technology. Its standards-based approach opens the way for vendor competition and cost reduction. At the same time, its exclusive focus on authentication still leaves the problem of how to validate certain aspects of identity, such as citizenship status. The paper discusses this in the context of the turf war between the UID and the National Population Registry.
UID also shows the importance of learning from failure. The case of Andhra Pradesh, discussed in the Annex, showed both the potential value of biometric ID and weaknesses that led to that massive exercise failing to deliver on its potential.