Monday, September 05, 2011

UID and mobile banking in India - too ambitious to succeed?

One of the biggest challenges with the distribution of mobile banking is a unified, national identification system. In many developing countries this does not exist, or, if it does, it is polluted with fraudulent data. That is why the UID project in India must be lauded. (Read more here). It is an ambitious project to provide a unique national identification number to every citizen of India and to do it in such a way that it is tightly coupled to unique biometric data. As this project is rolled out, it would theoretically streamline the issuance of mobile banking accounts.

Ultimately, every Indian citizen will have a unique identification number that can be traced to biometric data (fingerprints and iris scans) stored in a central data repository. The vision is that this will drastically reduce identity fraud, while at the same time, form the basis for many other industries to thrive: banking, social security and many more.

Unfortunately, the ambitious nature of the project is placing the whole project at risk. This is primarily because of three reasons:
  • The use of biometrics as the primary mechanism to uniquely identify citizens has never before been used successfully. To role this out in the second most populous country in the world without successful case studies in smaller countries is a bold move. Furthermore, the use of biometrics as the primary identification mechanisms for citizens is being questioned by some academics. (Read here).
  • The cost associated with a fully functional UID issuing agent is relatively high. (Considering the cost of fingerprint and iris capture systems as well as the need for connectivity etc.) The initial costs estimates to provide UID numbers to all citizens seem to be too low, and in addition, government might cut the allocated budgets (Read here)
  • In order to drive the take-up of UID, government has started to create demand for UID numbers. For instance, it is now only possible to be paid certain grants or apply for certain jobs if you have a UID number. (Read here). With a system not fully funded and an unbalanced demand, it is likely that loopholes will be found to issue fraudulent UID numbers.
It is in everyone's interest that the UID project succeeds, but will the degree of ambition ultimately lead to the downfall of the project?

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