India Opens its Massive Biometric Database to App Developers

Having created the world’s largest biometric-identity database, India is now opening it up for use by tech firms, healthcare providers and app developers. The country’s government had already culled fingerprints and eye scans, among other digital ID records, of nearly all its 1.2 billion citizens. Now, “India Stack,” a government-backed initiative, plans to standardize the digital exchange of that data. The result will make it easier for citizens to conduct financial transactions, get jobs and verify their identity.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Microsoft founder Bill Gates believes, “by allowing developers to incorporate use of government identification records in their commercial websites and apps,” the move could make India “the world’s most digitized economy” and “something that had never been done by any government before, not even in a rich country.”

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India’s earlier effort to gather biometric data was led by a new government authority, which developed the technology for biometric identification via mobile phones. The effort was staffed by recruits from Google, Yahoo and other private businesses, cost $1.2 billion and took five years to scan the fingerprints and eyes of nearly all of India’s population.

India also made a push in late 2016 to suppress tax dodging by removing large-denomination bank notes from circulation, a move that led towards a cashless economy, as use of mobile payment apps took off. Credit Suisse predicts that India Stack will catapult India’s financial technology sector from $2 billion to $600 billion by 2026. Although many Indians applaud the move as a way to reduce corruption and the frustration of dealing with government entities, some fear abuse.

“It’s the worst time for privacy policy in the country,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Privacy, a Bangalore-based think tank. “We are very caught up in technological exuberance. Techno-utopians are ruling the roost.”

Biometric identification programs in Europe and the U.S. have been relegated to passports and military IDs. The U.K. introduced a national biometric ID program in 2005, but destroyed all the data six years later in response to an outcry over privacy. Meanwhile, in India, the data “will be available to kids in a garage to develop innovative solutions,” said InfoSys founder Nadan Nilekani, the original chairman of India’s biometric program.

Edugil, an incubator in the city of Pune, has already backed three different tech startups to use the data “to boost school attendance and prevent examination fraud.” Another incubator, Alixor Venture, is working on developing apps “to allow individuals to provide their health records to any hospital or pharmacy, sign up for health-insurance plans or open a mutual fund with a simple thumb impression on a smartphone.” TrustID would let “applicants for jobs as nannies and housekeepers to provide prospective employers verified tax and education records, and facilitate searches for criminal records.”