Over the coming weeks I am going provide some of my thoughts around identification (ID) and ID solutions. A critical understanding about ID systems can be neatly boxed into a single statement:
Things you know; things you have; and things you are. But more on this later.
Almost from the beginning, Aadhaar (in India) has struggled to maintain a clear identity from what it is and what it is not. Even early on, there were clear ideologies that played out within what data to include within the ID system and what data to keep out, how that data could or should be used and the standards around security and privacy. With all that said, no one, at least within the core team, ever questioned the idea that Aadhaar was only to provide ID services. Externally, there were many distractions, many people with agendas, who did not really understand the importance of identity, nor the opportunities it presented.
Historically, in wealthier countries, identity is a comfort that is often taken for granted. It is often looked at as something you receive at birth by edict, by the association of your parents at a hospital. It is something that is well protected in case law and by an individual. In many developing countries though, it is a luxury. India has an institutional birth rate of less than 50%, though that has drastically improved through programs like RSBY and RHM over the past 10 years. The verifiable ID requires at least two components, one, a document that the holder can provide, and second, a system can validate the user and the document for authenticity. In most of India, there is no system that achieves both these tasks. Birth certificates have limited issuance at the time of birth, few systems can verify the authenticity of birth certificates and there is absolutely no system that can attest that the holder of the birth certificate is the person on the birth certificate.
In most developed countries, if you lose your birth certificate there is a well-oiled process for replacing the certificate. The issuing state verifies a couple of ID questions (things you know). The state verifies these from other well defined and trusted data sources, typically from government databases and outside credit databases, and within 24-48 hours you will have a replacement copy of your birth certificate.
In India, the process for replacing an ID document is much more difficult. One has to run from pillar to post getting verifications from the police, local government and a gazetted officer of the government, before then submitting the paperwork to a government official. That official then visually verifies the documents and the replacement document is likely issued to you after a few days or weeks. This process is both time-consuming and highly punitive to the poorest of people, who generally cannot afford to spend weeks gathering this data and waiting for a process that is, at best, opaque. There are no systems to verify any of the signed or delivered documents nor is there a process to verify that the person providing the documents is the person they claim to be, thus the system is highly fragmented and easily misused to extract speed up payments.
Aadhaar changes this process so that a computer system can be the verifier for the user, and matters are not reliant on a system of say, rent seekers to process data based on their timeframes but, instead, on the speed of software. The user only needs to be able to provide a piece of information to look up their number (things you have). This could be a phone number, an address or a name (things you know). The number is provided but cannot be used without the biometric link (things you are). With the validation of your biometric it is confirmed that the number is yours.