Aadhaar wins World Bank praise amid ‘big brother’ fears


Mumbai: A new internet is being built: it has 1.1 billion users, a third of the world wide web. Indian banks are running transactions on it and Microsoft has embedded it into Skype.

The biometric identifier program Aadhaar—or “foundation” in Hindi—has taken on a life of its own, authenticating loans and job seekers, pensions and money transfers across India.

And last week’s landslide state election win could embolden Prime Minister Narendra Modi to push Aadhaar beyond its early cost-saving goal, even as questions are raised about the security of its data and the proliferation of private companies seeking to profit from the information it stores.

Other countries are also looking at similar programs, but research shows it’s best to develop one standardized system so people can carry their IDs wherever they go in the world, said Paul Romer, chief economist at the World Bank.

“The system in India is the most sophisticated that I’ve seen,” Romer said. “It’s the basis for all kinds of connections that involve things like financial transactions. It could be good for the world if this became widely adopted.”

Identification is the first step to accessing services such as health and education in a world where 1.5 billion people can’t prove who they are. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals aim to provide legal IDs to all by 2030, triggering the creation of a range of platforms that offer basic rights to citizens of poorer countries while allowing those in the advanced world granular control over their digital data, such as school or medical records, and streamlining immigration.

An ambitious government-run project—just like the Internet at the time of its creation decades ago— Aadhaar began in 2009 to target payments to the poor across India’s vast hinterland.

Other governments are already interested in its potential. Countries such as Tanzania, Afghanistan and Bangladesh have visited India to talk about the system, said Nandan Nilekani, billionaire co-founder of the technology company Infosys Ltd. and former chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, who created Aadhaar.