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India plots 1.2bn user biometric ID cards project

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India is pushing ahead with plans to issue each of its 1.2 billion citizens with biometric-based ID cards, linked through an online database of Himalayan proportions.

The monster project, assigned to India's newly-established Unique Identification Authority, is designed to resolve confusion over 20 existing proof of identity (ranging from birth certificates to ration cards). The Times reports that none of these various proof of identity is universally accepted, creating a "bureaucratic black hole" when people move between India's 28 states.

The dream is that the scheme will fight corruption and streamline the verification of eligibility to state services. It may also have applications in controlling illegal immigration and fighting crime, at least as far as the federal government in Delhi is concerned.

A biometric chip on each card will contain personal data alongside the results of either fingerprint or iris scans. Criminal records and credit histories might also appear, The Times adds.

The Unique Identification Authority will also be responsible for "gathering and electronically storing" the personal details of those issued with cards, at a estimated cost of at least £3bn. The costs of much smaller projects around the world have overrun, so it's reasonable to speculate that the true cost of the scheme is only going to be higher than this early estimate. Huge technical challenge remain, not least building a database system capable of handling such a gigantic user base.

Aside from the sheer scale of the project, the fact that many Indians possess no existing documentary proof of ID poses a huge problem. Less than seven per cent of India's population are registered for income tax while voting lists are far from reliable, partly as a result of political corruption.

Nandan Nilekani, the outsourcing expert who co-founded Infosys, is leading the project and wants the database behind the scheme to be available online. This ambition adds extra security to already pressing scalability and privacy concerns. Nilekani has been given cabinet minister rank as chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India.

India hopes to issue the first cards within 18 months. ®

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