Last July, after virtually every adult in India was connected to the world’s biggest biometric identity database, one of the government officials behind it issued a challenge. R.S. Sharma, who oversees the country’s telecom regulatory agency, publicly disclosed his personal ID number in the system and taunted skeptics and potential hackers. “Show me one concrete example where you can do any harm to me!” he tweeted.
Opponents of the system swarmed, looking to show the dangers of having too much information amassed in one place. They scoured the internet for Mr. Sharma’s personal data by using the ID number to help open digital doors, and claimed some prizes: They uncovered his mobile number and a photo of his daughter and were able to deposit token amounts of money in his bank account. But they couldn’t withdraw funds or corrupt his data, and Mr. Sharma claimed to have proved that the system—which has on file the irises and fingerprints of all of its participants—is secure.
Mr. Sharma’s challenge reflects the tensions over India’s unique feat. It has reached near-completion just as objections to such giant concentrations of personal data have escalated elsewhere around the world, fueled by controversies surrounding Facebook and Google. Reetika Khera, an economist at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, calls the Indian system “big data meets big brother,” and she and others have aired what they see as its failings, from invasive information-gathering about those within it to dangerous consequences for stragglers left out.
India says its system—built to cover its 1.3 billion people, a sixth of the world’s population—heralds a new model for governments to marshal citizens’ data, ease digital pathways and fuel their electronic economies, especially in the developing world. India’s Supreme Court in September ruled that the program doesn’t violate citizens’ privacy rights, removing a huge shadow over the program. “It’s mind-boggling that a country like India has pulled it off,” said Anil Jain, a Michigan State University professor who studies biometrics.
The program—named Aadhaar, the Hindi word for foundation—began signing up users in 2010 but took several years to roll out to almost all Indians. The program’s chief aim is to eliminate corruption rife in the distribution of welfare benefits such as cash transfers and subsidized rice, so India’s poor get the benefits instead of illegal middlemen. It is also designed to make it easier for the masses to sign up for bank accounts and mobile phone plans, and to make payments via smartphones.
India’s citizens, large percentages of whom are illiterate and lack toilets or electricity in their homes, visit government centers and banks to enroll. They peer into eye scanners that resemble night-vision goggles and have their fingerprints digitized on special pads connected to computers. That information, along with their photos and other basic personal details, are uploaded to the Aadhaar database, and applicants are given unique 12-digit numbers matched to their data. They must use those to receive government benefits, for instance to collect subsidized sugar from shops. The shops scan their fingerprints on inexpensive readers and seek clearance from Aadhaar.
Hundreds of millions of Indians lack birth certificates or other reliable documentation of their identity, so Aadhaar is the first form of legitimate ID many possess. Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley says the country is saving $12.5 billion annually in waste from fraud and bureaucratic errors, many times the $1.6 billion the database cost to build. “Everyone must realize, including critics of Aadhaar, that you can’t defy technology or ignore it,” Mr. Jaitley has said.
Mohammed Akhtar is one Aadhaar beneficiary. The 26-year-old autorickshaw driver earns about $95 a month. He lives with his wife and three daughters in a one-room shack in a dusty New Delhi slum that is thick with flies. The family recently got electricity but has no running water or bathroom. Mr. Akhtar moved to New Delhi several years ago from Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, lacking any documents that could prove who he was.
“Aadhaar has helped me,” he said one recent morning, standing outside his door. “Earlier I had nothing.” Since getting his Aadhaar number two years ago, he has opened his first bank account and registered for mobile service for his first phone. Many banks and telecoms traditionally have required reams of paperwork to prevent fraud, such as birth certificates, proof of address and even documentation about relatives. Mr. Akhtar had none of these, but his Aadhaar ID allowed him to sign up for them in minutes. He and his family are unconcerned about potential hacks of their data: compared with richer Indians, he said, “We are not worried because we have nothing to lose.”
Governments differ greatly over whether and how to use masses of digital information. China sees data as a tool to surveil and control its citizens but hasn’t attempted a biometric network as expansive as India’s. China has national ID cards that include facial data and in some cases fingerprint details, but not iris scans. It uses facial-recognition technology in some train stations and more broadly in the autonomous region of Xinjiang to help control the Muslim population there. In the U.S., there is no national project to collect citizens’ biometric details. The European Union has focused on sweeping measures to protect individuals’ private data from what it sees as corporate abuse.
Nandan Nilekani, the billionaire founder of Indian IT services giant Infosys Ltd. and the program’s original chairman, calls Aadhaar the modern equivalent of the U.S. instituting Social Security numbers in 1936. He likens the government funding to U.S. federal investments in the interstate highway system and in research projects that led to GPS and the internet.
But Aadhaar’s many detractors see it as unnecessarily invasive, creating a huge security liability and a massive overreach by the government into citizens’ privacy. “If they get breached or the data is stolen, what are you going to do—create a new iris, a new fingerprint?” said George Avetisov, chief executive of the New York-based biometric computer security firm HYPR Corp. Such fears have spurred continuing efforts to demonstrate the system’s flaws. One group of holdouts maintains an online map of “Aadhaar Fails,” chronicling snafus such as enrollments failing in remote areas where mobile connections are patchy. A local newspaper reported that it was able to gain access to Aadhaar by purchasing login details from someone who may have worked to enroll users.
Some opponents point to cases in which India’s most destitute lost their benefits because they couldn’t transition to Aadhaar; those include people who are homebound or whose fingerprints have worn off from decades of manual labor. Ms. Khera, the economist, found in studying rural distribution of welfare benefits that 33 of 61 starvation deaths since 2016 were people either unable to enroll in Aadhaar or whose benefits were cut. Government officials have disputed that, saying the deaths were from illnesses and not starvation.
Critics also say Aadhaar has been subject to monumental mission creep. It has morphed, they say, from a voluntary program distributing benefits to the poor to one that is effectively required for many facets of daily life. Some schools, for example, have required children to have Aadhaar IDs in order to enroll. Many local governments and businesses now demand Aadhaar numbers for obtaining marriage certificates, purchasing train tickets and even for gaining entrance to cricket matches, in addition to getting bank accounts and phones.
A recent visit to an enrollment center at a bank in New Delhi yielded examples of Aadhaar’s potential benefits—and its pervasive reach. Shajita Parvez and her husband, for instance, stood at the end of a line snaking toward a desk in a corner, where a man was snapping photos and scanning applicants’ eyes and fingers. Ms. Parvez, who is 23 years old and seven months pregnant, said she was forced to sign up for Aadhaar after several hospitals rejected her effort to get an ultrasound examination without an ID number, even though her husband was enrolled.
Reached a few weeks later, Ms. Parvez said she had been able to obtain necessary treatment, and now planned to use her new Aadhaar number to get subsidized cooking gas as well as a connection for her first smartphone in time for her baby to arrive. “I will need to stay in touch with my husband all the time,” she said.