News Flash: Learning from India’s Vast Identity Programme

New report on what India’s decade-old initiative can teach the global digital ID ecosystem

To be effective, digital identity programmes must empower people, not governments. That is one of the key conclusions from a study of India’s massive Aadhaar identity programme by the Observer Research Foundation. Although the report argues that the benefits of the Aadhaar system to India’s public distribution systems “are disputable”, it says the programme, which has enrolled 1.2 billion people, has been successful in driving financial inclusion, accelerating the KYC process in opening bank accounts.

The report outlines five lessons from India’s decade-long experience of trying to build an effective national digital identity system. Firstly, by requiring very little personal information to be verified, Aadhaar has made rapid enrolment possible, paving the way for the subsequent development of use cases and applications. Secondly, the report argues that enrolment in digital identity programmes must be truly voluntary: the lack of a particular form of identity should not be the basis for denial of entitlements, both in practice, as well as in law.

Another lesson is that privacy-by-design principles, such as limiting data collection for specified purposes and controls on the retention of data, must be incorporated into the programme, in both the design of the technical system (as was done in the Aadhaar) and in the rules and processes for every partner and agency (public or private) involved in handling identity-related data. The report also contends that a critical, but often overlooked, aspect of the Aadhaar programme is that authentication services were built into its design, making identity “digital” in the true sense of the word.

Finally, the authors stress that early applications are crucial to encourage adoption, pointing out that the design of an identity programme should “take into account the enormous potential for financial inclusion that a foundational identity system can provide.”