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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 15th September 2017 > IRIS SCANS AND SCAMS


Over a billion people in India gave biometric data to the government for IDs, but what else have they surrendered?

THE OMINOUS changes at Ryan Sequeira’s workplace began in early 2015. First came the biometric machines, two on every floor of the New Delhi office where he worked as an architect for a government think tank. Then, about a month later, they did away with sign-in sheets—instead, employees had to clock in and out on the new machines by scanning their fingerprints and keying in their Aadhaar numbers.

This was all part of a radically ambitious plan set in motion in 2010, when the Indian government decided to enroll its 1.3 billion residents into a central database and issue unique identification numbers. Aadhaar, which means “foundation” in Hindi, was to form the backbone of social welfare programs by ensuring that beneficiaries could be properly identified, which in turn would help reduce fraudulent claims.

So Aadhaar was rolled out, and Indians all across the country headed to enrollment centers and had their biometrics taken—a photograph, 10 fingerprints and two iris scans—then waited for their free identity cards to arrive in the mail. Enrollment continues today, and the world’s largest biometrics database is now nearly complete, with over 99 percent of Indian adults— nearly 1.16 billion people—registered as of July.

Seven years on, the 12-digit Aadhaar number continues to be used in social welfare, but it has pervaded many other areas of Indian life— from banking to baby bonuses, mortgages to marriage licenses. For government employees like Sequeira, Aadhaar now means having to log their hours using biometric-based machines. The benefits of a unique ID number may seem plentiful, but there may be just as many risks.

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BLAME CLINTON? When Gennifer Flowers went public about her a air with then-Governor Bill Clinton, she called a press conference that devolved from farce to vaudeville. It became clear that the retaining wall between news and entertainment had collapsed.