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We're Next: Fast Start for World's Biggest Biometrics ID Project

From each volunteer participant, the government collects 10 fingerprints, 2 iris images, and a photo, and if the new data don't match any identity already enrolled, it assigns the person a unique 12-digit number. After that, a single fingerprint or iris scan should be all that's needed to verify the identity of any person. As of the end of March, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has registered more than 4 million people this way. The UIDAI hopes to eventually collect biometrics from a majority of the Indian population. India has many federal and state programs to help people living in poverty, but today it's nearly impossible to be sure that funds and benefits are actually being delivered to those who need them. The ID project is an attempt to cut down on fraud and graft by increasing accountability and transparency. It's also meant to provide access to banking and the formal economy that many people lack. Government biometrics programs have been tried before and failed, in India and elsewhere. The United Kingdom's universal ID program, for instance, got bogged down by both costs and privacy concerns and didn't offer tangible benefits to the average citizen. But the UIDAI's universal ID program, or Aadhaar, as it's called, seems to be off to a fast start. As soon as he was appointed in July 2009, chairman Nandan M. Nilekani set the ambitious goal of issuing the first million IDs within 12 to 18 months, and the UIDAI hit that mark by January 2011. Efficiency is not a strength of most government bureaucracies, so Nilekani looked to Silicon Valley for help. A core group of Indian expats with Silicon Valley start-up experience began working on the problem, as unpaid volunteers.

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