Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Indians get a Unique Identity

During my recent vacation in India, I had a wonderful opportunity to meet one-on-one with Nandan Nilekani, the Chairman of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIAD). Nandan is one of the architects of Offshore IT business in India. He founded and evolved Infosys into one of the most innovative and successful IT services provider in the world. I have always admired what he and his team achieved at Infosys.

I had heard about Nandan leaving Infosys in 2009 to lead a government project to provide a Unique Identification number (called Aadhaar number) to each and every Indian. I was intrigued but just did not get around to learning more about the initiative. Aadhaar is the hindi word that for "foundation" or "support". The idea is to create a 21st century equivalent of the US Social Security Number in India. The most attributes of the program in India are:
  • Each Aadhaar number is associated with biometric information (retina and fingerprint scans) that uniquely and digitally identifies the person.
  • UIAD had developed and runs a simple high-performance web-service for on-line verification of the Aadhaar number and the biometric information associated with it.
The fact that a service provider can validate the identity of a person in real-time opens up the possibility of developing some very unique and valuable services. Further, the fact that the number is tied to unique verifiable information allows the card-holder to retain complete control of all personal information associated with the card. Nandan and I had a long discussion on the possible services that this can enable in financial services, government programs, healthcare, etc. The possibilities are truly unlimited.

Over 12 years ago, I realized that strong identity management is central to secure and seamless access to IT services. We have developed a robust Identity and Access Management for the 30,000+ employees at the Washington Post companies and integrated all our services to one central IAM solution. It was very hard for us to develop a solution that is now broadly utilized across all the IT services provided by my team. The complexity of deploying a solution to support 1.2 billion people is just mind-blowing. The logistical and political challenges are just enormous.

I believe that even if the project delivers only 10% of its true potential, the value to the country and the citizens of India will be huge.