Nandan Nilekani on UID controversy

Nandan Nilekani on UID controversy

UIDAI Chairman Nandan Nilekani spoke with Business Today on the Aadhaar project in November 2011 and January 2012.

UIDAI Chairman Nandan Nilekani UIDAI Chairman Nandan Nilekani
UIDAI Chairman Nandan Nilekani spoke with Business Today on the Aadhaar project in November 2011 and January 2012. Excerpts:

How are you reacting to all the controversies surrounding the UID project?
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance finds the UID project to be "conceptualised with no clarity" and "directionless". The big issue is who does the enrolment. Within the government everybody agrees you need the UID and you need the applications. The only question is who does the enrolment. I think the best way to deal with that is to show its usefulness. To show fundamentally this is a capability which will allow you to give unmatched benefits to people. I think that's what going to win the debate. (Audio: Listen to the interview)

There are huge privacy concerns that have been raised. The worry is that UID could open up data for manipulation.
Privacy is something you trade for convenience. Even when you talk on the phone, you are subjecting yourself to the risk of being overheard -talking on phone could be taken as invasion of privacy. But the fact that I have a cell phone and anybody can reach me anywhere is an empowering thing that I am willing to take the risk for that. When you want to apply for loan, you will share all details of your assets---now that is also confidential information. But you are doing that for the benefit of getting a better loan.  The information we collect is name, age, date of birth and sex. This is information that is already available if you have a voter card or a passport.

Once the convenience of UID is understood, they will understand what they are giving up is very trivial. Of course they are giving biometrics, which other people don't take. But we have kept biometrics offline. I am quite comfortable that argument can be argued. All we are doing is that we are giving an online ID. We think this is just an online ID system. Nobody has access to the data. The data is anonymised.  It is not shared with any private company. Some very modern principles of security have been used. This is the world's first online ID system. From no ID to an online ID -we are jumping two steps.

You often describe Aadhaar as an app store for development -which sectors specifically do you see innovation coming in?

Sky is the limit! There will be three sets of applications. One set of applications will be government applications -which will include financial inclusion, electronic transfer of benefits, PDS reforms etc. Second set of applications could be enterprise applications -for instance, FMCG companies could design an application to improve last mile connectivity. Supply chain management could use it for supply chain. Third set would be consumer applications which will be done by entrepreneurs.

You will see that the public service interface will become more professional. We are doing to the common man what liberalisation did for the middle class.
I give the example of GPS, which was given to me by the CEO of Nokia, because GPS was developed by the U.S. Department of Defence for the purpose of missile targeting. But in Clinton's time, they put the technology in civilian domain. And now you have GPS used by planes, cars, google maps. And GPS only answers one question: Where am I? We are only answering: Who am I?

What change have we seen in the last one year?
There are several ecosystems that have been created. First, is the enrolment ecosystem - we have 50 registrars, 75 enrolling agencies and in that we have created an ecosystem of 70,000 operators. Within that there is a device ecosystem. We standardized the components --anybody who met our standards could become a certified supplier. And that has created an ecosystem that is driving innovation, choice, competition and cost reduction.

Till now, the biometric space was not industrialised, we industrialised the space. When we began, an Iris camera was costing something like Rs1.3 lakh, now it costs between Rs.30,000- Rs.40,000. So we created this device ecosystem for enrolment. Once we get into authentication - we will have a similar ecosystem for device authentication.

An authentication device could be a scanner certified again by UIDAI and STQC?
Right, what we are certifying is a scanner. This scanner can be plugged into anything -laptop, cell phone, tablet, Smartphone. It's an open architecture.

Authentication device is much more lightweight. For instance, Micro ATM is one application of authentication system. It is a device that supports financial transactions. Same thing can be used for any authentication - any service that requires authentication of an identity. Like for SIM cards, you have to fill a form and prove your identity. People with no identity find it difficult to get a mobile phone connection. SIM cards are sold by Kirana shop owners in someone else's name. But security guys are tightening all this up. The term cell of the Department of Telecommunications audits the kirana shop owners. The total fines from the mobile industry exceed Rs500 Cr. This is a big problem!

So, essentially people who do not have phone connections are those who are ID challenged?
Right, the mobile industry is not adding many new virgin customers. Most new customers are those who are changing their service providers. This would help the industry add more customers. Right now you can show your aadhaar letter, tomorrow it will be online. Anyone who has an aadhaar number, can go to a place which has an online platform, authenticate themselves and get a Sim card.

What is your vision of UID? What according to you can it mean for the country say in the next decade or so?
Because this is an online ID on the cloud, it can be verified anywhere. No other system gives you that. It becomes a gateway to public services. We think in the future three numbers will be empowering - Aadhaar number -the number with which you can confirm who you are to anybody; mobile number, and bank account number. These would be the three numbers of an aspiring Indian. In our vision these numbers are with you and they travel with you.