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Reflections on India’s Ruling of its Aadhaar Biometric Digital Identity System

– Omidyar Network

Subhashish Bhadra - Bangalore-based investment principal at Omidyar Network and former McKinsey consultant - reflects on the new guidance for Aadhaar, India’s 1.2 billion people strong nationwide digital identity system and the world’s largest biometric ID database

In September 2018, a Supreme Court ruling in India decided the future of its nationwide digital identity system, the largest of its kind in the world. The ruling came amid growing concerns from activists and lawyers who believe Aadhaar violates citizens’ privacy, creating a surveillance state by hosting a central government held repository for data linked to all services in India.

Aadhaar is being rolled out at speed to facilitate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Digital India’ push to digitalise government services. It captures biometric data from each citizen’s fingerprint, alongside a photograph of their face, to assign a unique 12-digit identification number used for identity verification purposes. Over 1.2 billion people are currently part of the data-set. Whilst the system serves all demographics, it particularly supports rural and poor households for the opening of bank accounts and other critical activities.

In this blog, Bhadra recognises the potential of Aadhaar while also outlining a number of concerns, from the over reliance on one - essentially compulsory - system to the need for increased individual agency within the Act.

Bhadra argues that the Supreme Court's judgement is well timed - not only does it provide an opportunity to improve Aadhaar, it will also encourage other countries to think about how to implement digital identity systems that are fit-for-purpose and protect the individuals they look to empower.

This is a critical moment for all governments to learn and respond in ways that strengthen their digital identity systems and fully empower people to participate meaningfully in the modern economy while also protecting their rights

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