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Fellow Discusses India’s Biometric Identification Projects

By Carolina I. Portela-Blanco, Crimson Staff Writer

Malavika Jayaram, a visiting fellow at the Berkman Center For Internet and Society, spoke about India’s new identification systems and the privacy concerns surrounding them at a luncheon discussion Tuesday.

During the event, which was entitled “Does Size Matter? A Tale of Performing Welfare, Producing Bodies and Faking Identity,” Jayaram discussed the use of biometric databases to identify and authenticate India’s population. She spoke specifically of two databases—the Unique Identification Authority of India and the National Population Register—which jointly have roughly 600 million people enrolled.

Both projects are run by the government, but while the Identification Authority is currently being rolled out in 16 states and is on a voluntary basis, the National Population Register is nationwide and mandatory.

Efforts towards making a comprehensive and universal identification system in India are not new, but the biometrics system, which uses iris scanning, facial recognition, and fingerprints to recognize individuals, is the most recent form of identification that the government and independent programmers have pursued.

Jayaram explained that there is an increasing need for identification in India, especially with the exponential growth of the population.

“India as a country is a very artificial political construct,” Jayaram said. “There is a desperate need to be identified and be made visible to the government. Something like an identification scheme is so compelling that they don't just sell it as identification, they sell it as identity.”

During the discussion, Jayaram showed ads that are currently being used in India to support the identification effort. She said that citizens are prompted to enroll in the system through these ads, which target individuals’ sense of patriotism and belonging in the community.

“It’s all about nation-building,” Jayaram said, noting that the ads called for people to “feel part of one country” and to “feel proud to be Indian” by enrolling in the system.

“It’s a very seductive vision of inclusion and belonging,” she said.

Jayaram also warned the audience about the negative implications of the database and how the current use of biometrics raises concerns about surveillance and privacy. The body is now being used as a password, she said.

“Data leakages are happening all over the place,” she added.

Dalia Othman, a colleague of Jayaram and fellow at the Berkman Center, noted how Jayaram was the perfect person to speak about the topic.

“It was really interesting to hear about the complexities about the identity system in India and it was great the Malavika could walk us through them,” Othman said.

—Staff writer Carolina I. Portela-Blanco can be reached at

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