Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Universal ID: Going beyond smart cards & databases

The June 2009 announcement of the appointment of Nandan Nilekani, cofounder of Infosys, as the head of UIDAI (Universal ID Authority of India) has created a lot of excitement.

What is missed out in the initial reactions is the larger issue involved. The government must be congratulated in correctly terming the office as “Universal ID Authority of India”. The terms “universal ID” “identification” and “authority” are very pertinent.

In recent years, many government departments have independently started issuing IDs to citizens of India, primarily to suit their interaction with the citizens. The home ministry through passport to track their travel in and out of the country. The income-tax department through PAN (permanent account number) to track income and expenses for the purpose of taxation. The Election Commission through their voter identity card. There are also ration cards, BPL card for poor families, driving licence and gas connection certificate

Common among all these experiments is the “limited purpose” of the intended use; no sharing of information among the agencies of the government. The UIDAI goes beyond “identity cards” to the very “identity” itself. It is important to evolve“architecture” of an identification system than the identity itself.

First, being “universal” in nature it is best to have a system that can accommodate citizens, permanent residents and visitors, though the system might focus on citizens first.

Second, it must be prospective in the sense that on the day when the system comes into force there is an enabling mechanism to put the system into action; in that sense it may be better to design a system that might start functioning 20 or 25 years from now, but with the guarantee that the eco-system to support such a system will be in place, rather than rushing through with one system or another.

Third, it must have system to take care of normal accidents — users losing an identity proof, users changing their status — location, job, marital status, getting children, acquiring property, occupying special position such as member of the parliament, prime minister of the country, and even special cases — facing disability, liquidation, criminal proceedings, change of name or sex.

Fourth, there must be a system of incorporating changes and re-issuance of identity proof that is easy, affordable and hassle-free , and yet making it rather difficult for end users with malicious purposes to do “identity theft” . Fifth, the identity system must have natural start and end points; for example, an identity system may start at the time of birth and accordingly it must be captured along with the birth of the child anywhere in the country; alternately, the identity proof issuance may happen at a specific age or at a specific stage — for example at the age of 18 — on acquiring the right to vote.

Sixth, there must be a system that “links up” the identity, say of two individuals at the time of marriage, children’s identity getting linked to parents with a provision that such linkages may have to be re-established during special circumstances (divorce, adoption in case of children).

Finally, the system must form the foundation for many identity proofs — passport, PAN, driving licence, voter identity card — and be able to keep the linkages intact and secure (ability to link all identity proofs, for example, all passports issued, all linked passports (spouse, children, parents), drivers licences issued at different places , voter identities issued.

Ultimately, the identity system must address all possible end uses of identity proof, for example, access to social benefits — pension, social security, subsidies, if any, and, insurance; right to vote, right to drive, right to drink, right to acquire property, right to job, help government to track — taxes, travel out of country, movements in case of bail, and, help citizens in getting services — bank account, BPL card, senior citizens benefits, healthcare, education.

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