India's Biometric ID System Has Led To Starvation For Some Poor, Advocates Say The world's biggest biometric system, with iris scans of 1.2 billion people, was designed to help the poor. But it has sparked concerns about privacy and in some cases has exacerbated starvation.
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India's Biometric ID System Has Led To Starvation For Some Poor, Advocates Say

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India's Biometric ID System Has Led To Starvation For Some Poor, Advocates Say

India's Biometric ID System Has Led To Starvation For Some Poor, Advocates Say

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It's October, and this month, we're looking at our bodies the way technology sees them in All Tech Considered.


CHANG: Smartwatches that detect heart problems, airport security systems that match our faces to our passports - as this type of technology becomes more common, it's forcing us to make some tough decisions.


We start in India. It has 1.3 billion people but no equivalent of the Social Security number, so the government has struggled to deliver benefits to people who might be illiterate or live in remote, rural areas. It created the biggest biometric ID system in the world, and NPR's new Mumbai correspondent Lauren Frayer recently joined it. She has this report.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Do I look straight ahead?


FRAYER: So I look into this machine, and it's scanning the inside of my eye, my irises.

Moving to India means joining the world's biggest biometric database called Aadhaar. I've been assigned a unique 12-digit number linked to my fingerprints, photo and iris scans. The data is stored on government servers. Aadhaar, which means foundation in Hindi, started eight years ago with a big, patriotic PR campaign.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: This commercial shows elderly people smiling as Aadhaar helps them collect state pensions. The system is voluntary, but in just eight years, the government has managed to enroll more than 1.2 billion people, the vast majority of the country, even those hardest to reach.


FRAYER: Downtown Mumbai is packed with soaring glass skyscrapers, headquarters for some of India's biggest banks. But just across the street, there are 25 street children asleep in a circle under a highway underpass.

MANISHA KAMBLE: My name is Manisha. I'm 17 years old (laughter).

FRAYER: Manisha Kamble grew up on the street. She has no address, no birth certificate. She was basically invisible to the state until the charity Save the Children helped her enroll in Aadhaar.

KAMBLE: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "In India, you're nothing without Aadhaar," Manisha says. She's proud to be counted, to become official. She's used Aadhaar to enroll in school. She studies at night under street lamps and got the highest marks in her class last spring.

Aadhaar can be used to verify your identity when you do anything with the government - get married, pay taxes or draw welfare and also when you open a bank account, sign up for a cellphone contract or set up an e-wallet online. The system is designed to cut fraud. It's hard to counterfeit your irises. But it requires electricity to scan people's biometrics and Internet to check them against government databases. In downtown Mumbai, you might have those. In poorer places, you often don't.

ASHOK KUMAR: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: Ashok Kumar scoops and measures out rice rations in rural Jharkhand, one of India's poorest states. More than half of Indians are eligible for free or subsidized food. The government says Aadhaar has helped purge hundreds of thousands of fake names from ration lists and from voter rolls.


FRAYER: People line up outside Mr. Kumar's tiny stucco shop. He scans their fingerprints with something that looks like a credit card machine. It runs on batteries and a cellphone signal.

KUMAR: No Internet.

FRAYER: But he says the network is shaky. He walks across the street, lifting his machine up overhead until he finally gets a signal. He sets up shop instead on the steps of a Hindu temple.


FRAYER: So you're putting in the Aadhaar number.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: And now this lady will put her finger on the scanner.

It checks her Aadhaar number against her fingerprints in a government database and prints out a receipt for her ration, a bag of rice.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: The next customer, Karu Bhuiya, is not as lucky. His fingerprints are worn from manual labor. Mr. Kumar tries to scan them five times, but he gets an error message.

KUMAR: Have problem.

FRAYER: Problem with the machine.

KUMAR: Problem.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: Most machines in rural India only scan fingerprints, not irises. So Mr. Bhuiya goes home without food. Technical difficulties like this are blamed for pushing some of India's poorest into starvation, says economist Jean Dreze, who lives in Jharkhand, where Aadhaar is mandatory for food rations. He says he's counted a dozen such deaths in recent months.

JEAN DREZE: I would actually prefer to call these destitution deaths because they are all cases of people who went hungry for days, who would have survived if they had had some resources. See; this is the unfortunate thing - that the most vulnerable people are those who are also more likely to be excluded by the system.

FRAYER: When Aadhaar scanners break down, there's supposed to be a backup system on paper. But at the ration shop we visited, the paper log was blank, unused.

NANDAN NILEKANI: There could be some implementation issues. Nobody should be denied benefits, either for lack of Aadhaar or for lack of authentication.

FRAYER: Nandan Nilekani is a tech billionaire who left the private sector to create Aadhaar for the Indian government. He told NPR this past May that the benefits far outweigh any glitches. Last January, a data breach prompted many Indians to question that, though. Investigative journalist Rachna Khaira discovered that the laptops of some Aadhaar enrollment workers had been hacked. Khaira managed to buy access to up to a billion people's Aadhaar data for less than $7.

RACHNA KHAIRA: My only concern was this - that if we should implement this project, it should be foolproof. We should not be scared.

FRAYER: Scared that the government may not be able to keep people's data secure. And it's not just a task for the government. One of the ways India managed to enroll so many people was by partnering with banks, utilities and cellphone providers, many of which require Aadhaar. So now your data resides with all of those companies, too.

Privacy activist Nikhil Pahwa says it's impossible to know how many data breaches have occurred. There are reports almost every day.

NIKHIL PAHWA: Look; when it comes to Aadhaar, it's the Wild West out there in India. Millions and millions of people have been compromised by the process. I see this as a major national security risk.

FRAYER: Concerned privacy activists took their case all the way to India's Supreme Court. And last week, the court ruled that private companies can no longer ask for your Aadhaar data. It also said schools can no longer require biometrics for admission.

But the data is already out there and being used by marketing companies, and possibly by political parties. In India, though, these are mostly concerns for the educated urban class.


FRAYER: Not far from that ration shop in Jharkhand, migrant workers take refuge from the monsoon in sagging thatch huts covered with blue tarps. Among them is Nisha Devi, who believes it was hunger that killed her uncle who recently died before he could get an Aadhaar card.

NISHA DEVI: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: She says the rest of the family rushed to enroll after his death. Local officials told them it could help them get welfare. Devi has not been able to get benefits yet, but she hopes this sophisticated biometric system might one day help her. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in rural Jharkhand, India.


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