India is taking to new technology faster than the West. But the key to advancement is that security measures are adopted at that same speed. After an alleged privacy mishap with the Aadhaar project earlier this year, India is now acutely aware of this reality—and taking steps to strengthen the program.
Biometrics, once considered an exclusive piece of technology, has quickly became mainstream in India. The country now stands second after China with a 31% adoption rate of biometrics technology, according to a Trust in Technology report released late last month.
The recent uptake can be largely credited to the government and its ambitious Aadhaar digital identification program.
The Aadhaar project
Launched in 2009, the Aadhaar project uses biometrics such as fingerprint and iris scans to record data of Indian citizens. A 12-digit unique identification number, or Aadhaar number, is then generated for every Indian citizen. Within seven years of its implementation, today more than 1.12 billion Indians (or 91% of the country) have been enrolled in this project, according to the Indian government.
With an Aadhaar number, Indian citizens can now open bank accounts, operate mobile wallets, gain uninterrupted access to government subsidies, access pension funds, and obtain and renew passports with relative ease.
However, the ambitious project suffered a setback early this year following reports of personal data being allegedly leaked from the Aadhaar database. While the government defended the project’s veracity, there was considerable doubt over claims stating the database was foolproof.
Ajay Trehan, cofounder and CEO of technology company AuthBridge, says, “Creating a country-wide database in limited time was by no means a small feat.
However, there has not been much of a technological evolution since Aadhaar was implemented. For any company gathering personal, identifiable data such as biometrics, security of such data platforms is of utmost importance.”
Stacking on security
In a bid to ensure tighter security around the existing biometric data on the Aadhaar database, numerous companies such as AuthBridge are working with the Indian government as part of an initiative called India Stack. Through an open-data platform, private technology developers can build a range of personalized services on top of the Aadhaar data, like stacks.
Bengaluru-based Signzy is one such firm that uses India Stack. The company essentially verifies and authenticates customer information digitally, mainly for banks and financial institutions. Arpit Ratan, cofounder of Signzy, says, “India scaled up biometric adoption in a prominent way through the Aadhaar project. The present-day challenge for banks and financial institutions is to build secure verification platforms.” Signzy uses Aadhaar as one among its many verification points for stronger customer verification.
The deployment of upgraded technologies is a guaranteed way to avoid any breaches, technology experts believe. Ratan explains that the latest biometric technology is compliant with FIDO protocols—they essentially create a mathematical representation of user biometrics such as fingerprints or iris scans that are sent to third parties, and retain the original biometrics on the host device, thereby limiting any chance of data theft and consequent breach of security. Since biometrics continues to be at the core of Aadhaar, private developers know that it is imperative to build stronger and more mature technologies that strengthen the biometric platform altogether and ensure there is no leakage.
The government, too, understands the need for constantly upgrading technology to support its database. Following reports of the leak, Trehan says that the Aadhaar authorities have been incorporating a series of critical checks within the system.
By providing the most updated and reliable security platforms, the goal is to eventually make the technology more humane and accessible, adds Arpit.
Keep the trust
The Indian government’s flagship Digital India program envisions the transformation of India into a knowledge-driven economy through a digitally empowered society. At the center of this vision is the Aadhaar, as core functions in the country such as banking, education, healthcare and transportation are being linked to it.
The need of the hour is to step up the technology that supports this ambitious goal. “The government is gaining the trust of a billion Indians, and now we need to work consistently to keep that trust in place,” says Trehan.