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Sunday, 13 September 2009

Project to make us Unique!

This is about the much talked about Unique Identification Number project headed by Nilekani. His interview with CNN-IBN's Karan Thapar was an eye opener in this matter. Though this project looks very fancy and on the lines of the SSN numbers of US (as we just try to follow them), the feasibility and the success of this project could gain confidence not before answering hundreds of queries and worries.
The technology -
The technology has a very vital role to play in this ordeal. Mr Nilekani claims that the technology is available and it just needs to scale up. But the project lead is himself not very sure of this. He was talking like any fresher techie would do. There were many research snippets that Karan Thapar always brought into picture throughout the interview, most of them from the London School of Economics. One of them claimed that the high end technology itself is not available which can promise privacy and security even in UK's case. If it were at least available on a small scale without any flaw, then we could think of scaling it up. And even if it comes, it will come at a very high price. That's the next concern.
The cost -
1.5 lakhs crores is the estimate just to implement it once. The hidden costs, maintenance etc comes later. Mr Nilekani claims that the cost would be 10 folds lesser again not very sure of what he was saying. To put it in simple words, we cant take a call on the cost right now but surely its going to be a huge amount. And if this amount doesn't get support that it seeks from the technology, then it is no better than our driving licenses, PAN cards and Electoral Voter's Cards.
The Databse -
The major problem comes here. For every Indian to have a Unique number, there needs to be massive database which has to keep changing and updating continuously. The question here is not about the database but about the authenticity of the information in this database. We all know how easy it is to get your license, PAN card etc. Can the new system prevent this? I think this is not even in the hands of the technology but on the finger-tips of our unscrupulous bureaucrats. Now if this number is going to decide our fate wherever we go, the authenticity really becomes important. Also as pointed out by Karan Thapar, how are we going to solve the problems of mistakes that are often seen in our passports which by far is the most authentic piece of identification.
Privacy and Security -
Do you want any person to just log-in some webpage, enter some digits and get all information about you? Ok lets accept this, that the information would not be made public and steps would be taken to prevent information extraction as Mr Nilekani said the answers would be in "yes" or "no" when you ask the database some question. Our politicians would indeed have access to this information which they would use for their own benefits without falling in the eyes of the law. Also as challenging and secure you make it for the hackers the more efforts they will put into this. Can the existing technology prevent really important private information at an effective cost?
The time -
Even if we assume that all odds are in favour, the time that its going to take to establish this system fully through all generations with least error is indeterminate. By the time it starts resolving errors, a new set of change, update and errors would bother the system managers.

If we compare this with the SSN system of the US, we would say that if it was possible in US then why not in India. First we should understand what an SSN number is. This is a kind of identification number which was started for taxation purpose just like our PAN number. Then gradually as the laws changed, even kids who as dependents of working parents needed to have a SSN number to claim income tax benefits. Also, with time more information was embedded into this number. But duplicates, erroneous cases always questioned the importance of this number.
Furthermore, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have demonstrated an algorithm which uses publicly available personal information to reconstruct a given SSN. Exacerbating the problem of using the social security number as an identifier is the fact that the social security card contains no biometric identifiers of any sort, making it essentially impossible to tell whether a person using a certain SSN is truly the person to whom it was issued without relying on some other means of documentation (which may itself have been falsely procured through use of the fraudulent SSN). And now there have been thoughts over passing laws that restricts the use of SSN numbers for many commercial purposes.
Records say that 80% Indians have an electoral voter's card. Everyone who pays tax has a PAN. We are not trying to put more information in these numbers but to create a totally different database of information and make another card with this unique number. We are planning to include biometric details of a person as well and promising privacy. We are inviting a lot of cost and insecurity and the technology has her hands up.
There are a lot of variables in this equation. If it happens the way it wants to be, then this would set an example, a code, a process for the world. It is a nightmare project but not impossible. Lets hope that this system would really be helpful for the mass and would address our problems in a much better way. We are at an infant stage in this project and surely we can expect a lot of developments and the questions would be gradually answered.

Good luck Mr Nilekani!

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