Indian biometric census – beware of the dangers!

India’s 15th census has just been launched (Times of India, video), with the physical count of people due to take place from 9th-28th February 2011.  Over the next year, some 2.5 million census officials will be visiting households across the country, to begin the process of recording information about them.

What is unusual about this census, though, is that every person over the age of 15 will be photographed and will also have all of their fingers fingerprinted, so as to create a national biometric database, information from which will be used to issue identity cards.  The first 16-digit identity number will be issued starting in November 2010 by the Unique Identification Authority, a new state department.

The first person to be listed was President Pratibha Patil, who according to the BBC, “appealed to fellow Indians to follow her example ‘for the good of the nation’.  ‘Everyone must participate and make it successful’, she said in Delhi”.

The government expects this to bring real benefits.  As the Times commented in July 2009, “It is hoped that the ID scheme will close … bureaucratic black holes while also fighting corruption. It may also be put to more controversial ends, such as the identification of illegal immigrants and tackling terrorism. A computer chip in each card will contain personal data and proof of identity, such as fingerprint or iris scans. Criminal records and credit histories may also be included”.

This is deeply worrying, and as with other such schemes fundamentally changes the relationship between citizens and the state. Interestingly, the initiative is being headed up by Nandan Milekani, the co-founder and former CEO of Infosys, who according to the Times has said that “we have the opportunity to give every Indian citizen, for the first time, a unique identity. We can transform the country”. Does he not realise that every Indian citizen already has a unique, and very special identity – in themselves?

Just because it is possible to do this, does not mean it is right to do so.  Not only are there profound ethical concerns about states creating databases of the biometric data of citizens, but there are also real practical problems. The opportunities for identity theft on a massive scale are very real, and should not be underestimated.  More worryingly, though, is the point that this changes the balance of power between individuals and the state, very much in favour of the latter.  If governments change, and people lose trust in them – as often happens – imagine what such governments might do with biometric data on all their citizens.  Imagine if Hitler or Stalin had had access to the biometric identities of all of the people living in Germany and Russia?  Imagine if the USA gained access to biometric data of everyone in the world?

The real winners in the promulgation of such digital initiatives are the companies who promote, design and manage them!  It is no coincidence that it is the co-founder of Infosys who is now chairperson of the Unique Identification Authority of India! Mind you, another group of people who will benefit hugely from the introduction of such technology will be those who make fake fingerprints for sticking onto your fingers – or even the plastic surgeons who alter fingerprints, as in the case of the Chinese woman who entered Japan illegally after having had her fingerprints altered…



Filed under Ethics, ICT4D, Politics

5 responses to “Indian biometric census – beware of the dangers!

  1. James Bond

    This article is nothing but scaremongering. There is very poor understanding of the ground issues and the views seem to be from a neo-colonial western perspective, with complete disregard to the benefits that will accrue to the poorest of the poor in society. At the cost of “privacy fears” of the bourgeoisie, who have something to loose, the benefits to the masses will be curtailed (who have nothing much to loose if their privacy is compromised.
    “Imagine if Hitler or Stalin had had access to the biometric identities of all of the people living in India” – they can do whatever they want to do with or without the biometric ID. Of course there will be issues but that does not mean that the benefits of unique identification should be forfeited for the limited “privacy” benefits of a privileged few. This is akin to saying that making of steel blades should be banned because it can used to stab people and hence no surgeon should have access to a scalpel.

  2. unwin

    An interesting perspective – thanks for your comments. It is actually the poorest of the poor for whom I am concerned.

    Please also note, I did not say “Imagine if Hitler or Stalin had had access to the biometric identities of all of the people living in India”.

    My comments were meant to raise some of the very real ethical issues that biometric IDs give rise to – there is absolutely no question that they change the balance of power between individuals and the state.

    And, I do not think I am scaremongering – look at what has happened elsewhere, as in Kenya . Let us wait and see.

    Of course there are some benefits – but these come at a cost. For a more detailed account of the issues, see my paper at

  3. Pingback: Digital databases and political campaigning « Tim Unwin’s Blog

    • unwin

      Indian NGOs are now waking up to these concerns. See the following by Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society (, who “told press persons here that neither the launch of the UID project nor the constitution of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) had any legislative sanction. Nothing is known of how the chairperson of the authority is selected, while the project proposes finger-printing of the entire population and storing of biometric and personal data of every person throughout his life and thereafter”.

      “Although the scheme is to only provide verification of identity, it is unclear what safeguards would prevent third parties from handling, sharing and utilising the data for any purpose,” he said. The UIDAI has agreed to use the services of foreign companies, their software and hardware. It appears that no thought has been give to the perils of placing in the hands of foreign companies data pertaining to the entire population of the country, Mr. Abraham felt. About the claims that the UID project will save crores of rupees by preventing misuse of various welfare schemes, Mr. Abraham questioned whether any feasibility study had been made in this regard.

  4. minlun singsit biometric census is so important,can i object.

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