Fast Company

54 Million IDs, 25,000 Sq. Feet, And 1 Massive Goal: Inside India's Biometric Database Project

Over the past year, the registration rate has grown, and data centers in Bangalore and Delhi are now fielding 1 million new registrations every day. The southern state Andra Pradesh anticipates that all their residents will be registered by 2012. "The technology center is the heart of the whole project," says R. S. Sharma, the deputy general of the Unique Identification Authority.

Alex's Eye Macro - Iris Detail

The organizers of India's biometric project, "Aadhaar," celebrated one year of its launch at the end of September, with a small party at its Bangalore offices. Since begun in September 2010, the project has scanned irises and fingerprinted Indians across the country, and has so far issued 54 million IDs, with the hope of meeting a goal of 200 million by the end 2012.

At the Aadhaar Technology Center in Bangalore, software engineers, research scientists, visiting professors, volunteers and government officials are working to keep the databases and servers running hitch-free, clearing backlogs, and building new applications to navigate and control the quickly expanding database.

"The technology center is the heart of the whole project," R. S. Sharma, the director general of the Unique Identification Authority of India--the administrative body that owns Aadhaar--tells Fast Company.

Over the past year, the registration rate has grown, and data centers in Bangalore and Delhi are now fielding 1 million new registrations every day. The southern state Andra Pradesh anticipates that all their residents will be registered by 2012.

When new data for an individual comes in, it is checked against every existing record--a process called de-duplication. This ensures that each person only signs up once--but it's also a computation that will grow exponentially as both, the size of the database and the number of registrations per day grows.

But the Technology Center is growing, too. Ashok Dalwai, the deputy director general and head of the tech center says that the tech center space expanded from 9000 square feet six months ago, to 25,000 square feet in total today. And they're angling for 26,000 square feet more. Dalwai won't say how many more people they've employed to get through the work, but says that one of Aadhaar's software developer partners, Mindtree, has added 200 features to the back end database management system in this last year alone, bumping it up to over 600 features today.

Because the project has grown so quickly, the challenges that the administrators are looking at have changed quite significantly from one year ago. "We are comfortable that the system works," Sharma says. "Now it's the scalability and ensuring that there are no backlogs developing at any stage of the system." The administrators are also working to develop their relationship with partners--like banks--who will eventually use the ID service. This month, biometric scanners and ID authenticators have begun to be tested in parts of Karnataka.

Recently, Delhi residents were offered the facility to book an appointment to register at their nearest Aadhaar location, saving them hours long waits in queues to register for their number. The ability to offer people features like this is an example of one kind of application that the Aadhaar Technology Center is developing. "We are continuously adding on because we are flexible and dynamic in our approach," Dalwai tells us.

Another recently finished application allowed the system to correct errors in the database after an individual had turned in their details, Dalwai explains. Now, the data center will know how to process two packets of information about the same individual, swapping in the corrected info, if it's sent in within 48 hours of registration.

India's biometrics project has the potential to do much good. It could give millions of un-registered Indians an ID and with it, the ability to open bank accounts, receive government aid, and more. As an entirely digital project, with encrypted data going straight from the databases to the banks and other services who would use them, it has the potential to jump over another hurdle that often trips up Indian government operations: corruption.

But biometrics databases are also notorious as potential security targets to be attacked from the inside and the outside. Recently, Israeli authorities arrested a man responsible for the theft of 9 million records from the country's biometric database, but not before the records had hit the Web, where copies remain accessible and downloadable. Security has been at the forefront of their planning process from the start of the program, Dalwai says, but if the need to beef it up should arise, they are open to change.

[Front Image: sepulture/is.dead/Image: Flickr user Nick Fedele]

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. Follow on Twitter, Google+.

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