The Indian government’s plans of exporting the technology layer powering Aadhaar, the country’s digital identity system and software stack that enables delivery of citizen services, to other countries is slowly gaining momentum.
Over 20 countries have shown interest in studying and implementing a digital identity system inspired by India’s Aadhaar and the software stack built around it, and the government has started early discussions with many of these countries, as per sources.
The effort is being led by M J Akbar, the minister of state for external affairs and multiple ministries are involved in formulating a plan to take the India Stack to other countries, sources told FactorDaily. India Stack is a set of code that allows developers to build applications and software that can piggyback on the Aadhaar platform.
“There are many ministries involved in this and talks are on with some countries that have expressed interest,” said one source. FactorDaily could not reach Akbar for comment.
Financial daily Mint had reported in mid-2016 that countries like Russia, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia have shown interest in implementing an Aadhaar-like system and the World Bank was acting as a facilitator to export the model.
The World Bank views digital identification as a “game changer and a force-multiplier in the global push toward poverty alleviation, access to finance and shared prosperity.” The United Nation wants member countries to issue legal identification to all citizen by 2030 as part of its sustainable development goals agenda (Aside: there’s confusion about UN backing for biometrics as a form of identification, read a fact-checked report here).
Asean countries, which include Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand have also shown interest, a source aware of the government’s plans said. He, however, declined to be named as he isn’t an official spokesperson.
“Everyone today understands the importance of a digital identity system which is why you have efforts in many countries,” says Sanjay Anandaram, one of the volunteers at software products think-tank iSpirt, which has worked closely with the government to implement the India Stack.
Last month, The Hindu reported that Sri Lanka is keen on launching an Aadhaar-like initiative. Sri Lanka’s Minister of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure Harin Fernando has said that the country has plans to digitize national identity cards of Sri Lankans with biometrics and also link government schemes and services to it. The report said that Sri Lanka is “in talks with New Delhi at the highest levels”.
In some quarters, this is being seen as an export opportunity from India. Samir Saran, the vice president at Observer Research Foundation, argues in the Times of India that as companies such Facebook and Google race to acquire personal data, for developing countries the tradeoff is control over such data and India can propose an Aadhaar-based alternative that lets governments retain jurisdiction over their data.
Digital identity systems are a matter of fierce debate world over. There is a massive push to digitize identification mechanisms in many countries. It appears that in libertarian countries that are sensitive to informational privacy, digital identity systems are largely seen as a positive force that helps cut through red tape and improve the efficiency of governance. Whereas in authoritarian regimes, it can be seen as ‘Big Brother.’
Countries like Estonia are being hailed as ‘digital republics’ as they’ve digitized many government functions on the back of a digital identity system. On the other end, you have China, that is being called a digital totalitarian state, as it uses digital identity system to keep an eye on its citizen.
In India, a battle is raging between proponents of Aadhaar who see it as a force of good and opponents, who say that it can be used to implement mass surveillance system, exclude the citizen from availing benefits and that it has a flawed architecture leading to the breach of an individual’s privacy. The Supreme Court is slated to rule over a bunch of petitions challenging Aadhaar and its use, soon after the data protection laws in the country are firmed up.
“It’s easy to diss Aadhaar. Is there scope for improvement? Sure. But the greatness of what has been done in India is that it has been done in seven years at a price of about $1 per Indian,” said Anandaram. According to the Unique Identification Authority of India, Rs 8794 crore (~ $1.4 billion) has been spent on the Aadhaar programme until now.
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