Unique Identification Number (UID) - Does the idea of roping in Telecom service provider has merit?

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI)has been established to provide a unique number to every resident in the country to target social security services as well as to assure the internal security. Authenticating 1.16 billion people is not an easy task. At this scale, it's going to be a one of its kind project and given the "as is" stage in which India is currently in, Mr. Nilekani needs to do lot of head scratching.

Nilekani, has already said that UIDAI would be looking for the databases of PAN card, passport, driving license, ration card, voter I-card and so on. But the first three cover only a small part of the population and the ration card data is subsumed in voter card data. The telecom user database of 500 million users is an obvious source which can be digged to help the UIDAI to have some part of the personal information checked.

Hence, The Indian government’s ambitious and high-tech unique identity or UID project is all set to ride on India’s 500 million strong telecom network as one of the largest available databases of subscribers anywhere in the world. So as a logical conclusion, DoT, along with the various telecom service providers, can be major stakeholder in this process. There are 480 million telephone subscribers in the country at the moment. Taking margin of error into account, the telecom database is an authenticated database of people in terms of identity and address is concerned.

To discuss how the database of nearly 500 million telephone subscribers can be used for issuing the unique identification number, the enrollment process of UID and how the telecom companies could help in the task of "Standardisation of Know Your Resident' norms which is a major goal of the all-India project for issuing the unique ID, UID Authority of India chaiperson and former Infosys cochairman Nandan Nilekani met telecom operators and DoT officials on 24th Sept seeking their cooperation.

While media reports indicate that Nilekani have sought similar cooperation from banks, post offices, and energy and fertilizer sectors, none of these offer the kind of large subscriber numbers and ready-to-use verification details as the telecom sector. This means that the country’s telecom subscribers could be among the first to be enlisted into UID scheme.

It is learnt that the project is expected to take 12 to 18 months to issue its first UID card and will then accelerate to clock half a billion citizens by the end of 2012. The telecom subscriber base works out perfectly since estimates place mobile users at well past 700 million by this timeframe. So essentially, if the UIDAI could convert every known mobile subscriber into a unique identity, it would have achieved a feat unmatched globally.

A major hurdle in implementing the project arises from the daunting task of developing appropriate software to support such a large database. The UID solution will have to have a quick query response system so that one can search by biometrics, particularly to track criminals. Further, the task of physically collecting one billion biometrics, photographs and other details in a short period of time is a logistics nightmare. Outlets will have to be nominated where people can go to have their data uploaded on to the database. Here again, the 10 million-strong mobile sales and distribution machinery may hold the key. This is because India has 97% mobile subscribers in pre-paid category who return month-after-month to renew the charge on their SIM cards.

As reported in press, Mr. Nilekani has said that the project will provide a unique identification (UID) number not a card. And hence the authentication can be made by using mobile phones. Once the UID is issued, one can go for online authentication.

Now all these seems to be just initial thoughts, getting the loose ends tied up will take its own time. In my opinion, the operators themselves rely on address proof and photo id proof which are unreliable for as far as linking to unique ID is concern. Further many forms (CAF) are missing and operators are being penalized for this. In my opinion, given the fact that many people carry more than two mobiles and also that many of reported numbers may not be operative, it will difficult to get meaningful information from mobile customer data beyond 100 million customer. To take the idea far, Mr. Nilekani's team will require to do some out of box thinking.


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