“A neatly dressed middle-aged man leads the children to a nearby table, and a brisk young woman in a green skirt sits Kiran down at another. The young woman takes her own seat in front of a Samsung laptop, picks up a slim gray plastic box from the cluttered tabletop, and shows Kiran how to look into the opening at one end. Kiran puts it up to her face and for a moment sees nothing but blackness. Then suddenly two bright circles of light flare out. Kiran’s eyes, blinking and uncertain, appear on the laptop screen, magnified tenfold. Click. The oversize eyes freeze on the screen. Kiran’s irises have just been captured.
Kiran has never touched or even seen a real computer, let alone an iris scanner. She thinks she’s 32, but she’s not sure exactly when she was born. Kiran has no birth certificate, or ID of any kind for that matter—no driver’s license, no voting card, nothing at all to document her existence. Eight years ago, she left her home in a destitute farming village and wound up here in Mongolpuri, a teeming warren of shabby apartment blocks and tarp-roofed shanties where grimy barefoot children, cargo bicycles, haggard dogs, goats, and cows jostle through narrow, trash-filled streets. Kiran earns about $1.50 a day sorting cast-off clothing for recycling. In short, she’s just another of India’s vast legions of anonymous poor.
Now, for the first time, her government is taking note of her. Kiran and her children are having their personal information recorded in an official database—not just any official database, but one of the biggest the world has ever seen. They are the latest among millions of enrollees in India’s Unique Identification project, also known as Aadhaar, which means “the foundation” in several Indian languages. Its goal is to issue identification numbers linked to the fingerprints and iris scans of every single person in India.
That’s more than 1.2 billion people—everyone from Himalayan mountain villagers to Bangalorean call-center workers, from Rajasthani desert nomads to Mumbai street beggars—speaking more than 300 languages and dialects. The biometrics and the Aadhaar identification number will serve as a verifiable, portable, all but unfakable national ID. It is by far the biggest and most technologically complicated biometrics program ever attempted.
Aadhaar faces titanic physical and technical challenges: reaching millions of illiterate Indians who have never seen a computer, persuading them to have their irises scanned, ensuring that their information is accurate, and safeguarding the resulting ocean of data. This is India, after all—a country notorious for corruption and for failing to complete major public projects. And the whole idea horrifies civil libertarians. But if Aadhaar’s organizers pull it off, the initiative could boost the fortunes of India’s poorest citizens and turbocharge the already booming national economy.”