Biometrics: The road ahead

by Vikas Singh    May 10, 2010

As India embarks towards undertaking one of the largest citizen mapping and identification initiatives in the world, the issue of using the right blend of technologies will hold the key to its success. But beyond the way multiple technologies will seamlessly interact with databases, it is critical that for the end beneficiaries the technology translates into something which is user friendly yet tamper-proof.

Application of biometric solutions makes immense sense in a country like India struggling with the problem of maintaining homeland security. For decades, many highly secure environments have used biometric technology for entry access at airports, borders etc. There have been various challenges in identity management like ID duplication. Such unproven identities are high in numbers, especially in case of the poor populous and they are the ones that are downtrodden in the society. Inability to prove identity is one of the biggest barriers preventing the poor from accessing benefits and subsidies designed specifically for them. These problems can be brought to an end using biometric solutions. Biometric techniques are gaining popularity in all financial institutions and finger printing technology being used extensively by all the law enforcement organizations for criminal tracking and prosecution.

For eliminating the menace of identity theft, there should be layers of identification for determining the identity. This gives scope for technology like biometrics that has fast emerged as a promising technology for authentication and has already found place in various areas like security and identity management.

There are several examples which can be emulated in Indian environment like the UK biometric passport - a single chip inside the passport contains complete information about the holder. The chip containing the biometric and personal details has an antenna which can be read electronically. Using it, biometric checks can be used at border controls, especially at automated passport control gates.

Recently, the Gujarat Government tied up with one of the largest OEM’s in India to introduce a biometric attendance system in government schools. This program intends to monitor the attendance of girl child to schools and enable provisions to decrease dropout rate in schools. If successful in the pilot stage, the project plans to cover over 7000 schools in the state with over 1000 schools under Tribal Department & over 6,000 schools under Education Department.

Greater initiatives such as these will be taken to introduce biometrics in the field of education, healthcare and ancillary industries like insurance. A number of Biometric specialist companies have started working with state Governments to make health care insurance available to India’s rural population, while the usage of biometric component helps prevent unauthorized access at the point of authentication in the hospitals, it helps contain misuse of government machinery and funds.

The true value of biometric solutions can be realized only if put to use in simplifying the lives of common people. But this will require the co-operation of different organizations involved. For example, processing the workers monthly wages into the respective bank account will require that the banking authorities work in tandem with the local government administration, with the biometrics serving as a base for authorizing the transaction. Government schools today are beset with absenteeism and are at the juncture of a total revamp. Teachers today have poor attendance records and parents are misusing advantages given for educating a girl child through various social schemes. Technology lies at the heart of the reform and it should drive change in the right direction.

It would be unwise to undermine the importance of biometric technology at any level. If utilized well, it can come handy in ensuring transparency and accountability in important sectors which further will benefit the underprivileged population of the country. Ambiguous terms like financial inclusion will take concrete shape and will be instrumental in formation of an egalitarian society. This will not only curb malpractices but will also add credibility and institutionalize the entire process of authentication & verification.

There is a popular tendency to regard biometric products as sci-fi mythology, but the reality is that biometrics is here to stay. It is quickly becoming recognized as the most accurate identification technology in the market, with credentials to back it up. The impact of biometrics in our lives is bound to be of significant importance. While today we see the implementation of the technology only in pockets but the rate at which its popularity is growing, it will govern our lives at every step. Biometrics is moving towards building a lifecycle of identity. It is likely to create and store the individuality of 1.2 billion people of this country.

Projects like these can determine the identity of an individual,  authenticate a citizen on a standalone basis but can possibly, throw up a history that tracks every progression of a person from education to marriage and reflect even the minutest details like ration card , gas connection. In a way a single number will define a person’s life and build a lifecycle that authenticates him. Hence it goes beyond just authentication and record maintenance; it is symbolic of every citizen’s life history that sits on a single number residing on high end biometric calculations.

In the years to come, we foresee biometrics playing an important role in reforming identity lifecycle and bringing about reforms at every level from education, land records, hospitals to being a part of social schemes rolled out by the government.

The author is the Country Head, Services & SI at NEC India Pvt Ltd.