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Aadhaar and the uniqueness of fingerprints

Submitted by Karthik on 28 June, 2012 - 00:54

About a month ago, there was a report on potential issues with iris scans. This week's Frontline contends that fingerprints are not infallible either and the related ramifications for the UID/Aadhar project. It also mentions that Nilekani has publicly stated that iris scans are "not a mature technology" and has questioned its accuracy.

For years, the infallibility of fingerprints as a mark of uniqueness has been some sort of a fairy tale. But with increasing cases of fingerprint mismatches leading to human rights violations like prison detentions, the confidence is waning. Indeed, it was such loss of confidence that contributed to the shelving of national identity projects in the U.K. and many other countries.

If the confidence is waning globally, in India there appears to be a deeply intriguing faith in the use of fingerprints in establishing unique identity for a population of 120 crore. The Aadhaar project is a classic example. Biometrics – particularly fingerprints – is a central feature of the Aadhaar project. That a Parliamentary Standing Committee had torn apart the robustness of the fingerprint technology – calling it “untested and unreliable” – is dismissed by the government. While time will indeed prove this faith misplaced, some immediate respect for the sceptical voice appears to be long overdue.

As is evident from the excerpt above, the writer is just a wee bit biased. The piece goes on to examine some of the bugs and loopholes of the current UID system. This includes stories of corruption, fake addresses and this little gem:

Secondly, in what has been the most hilarious Aadhaar number provision to date, one Aadhaar number (4991-1866-5246) was issued in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh to a person named Mr Kothimeera (that is, coriander), with his father’s name as Mr Palav (biryani) and address as Gongura Tota, Mamidikaya Vooru (Mango village), Jambuladinne, Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh - 515731. To top it, the date of birth of Mr Kothimeera was recorded as 1887, and the photograph on the card was that of a mobile phone. It is as yet unclear as to what biometric records were supplied with “Mr Kothimeera’s” demographic details and how it passed the test of biometric de-duplication.

While the "I-told-you-so" tone of the article casts a faint pall over its objectivity, it nevertheless succeeds in instilling doubt over both the technical and implementational aspects of the Aadhaar project. The fact that iris scans are/can not be used for authentication is particularly piquing.