Last Sunday an 11-year-old boy in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southeast India, hung himself from a ceiling fan as his family slept. He was allegedly driven to this act after being denied an Aadhaar card—formally known as Unique Identification (UID)—which he was told he needed to attend school. The card is one arm of India’s sprawling scheme to collect the biometric data, including fingerprints and iris scans, of its 1.2 billion citizens and residents, and is quickly becoming practically, if not legally, mandatory, for nearly every aspect of life, from getting married to buying cooking gas to opening a bank account. More than 630 million residents have already enrolled and received their unique 12-digit identification number.
Since its launch in 2010, people have raised a number of questions and concerns about Aadhaar, citing its effects on privacy rights, potential security flaws, and failures in functionality. India’s poor, who were supposed to be the biggest beneficiaries of the program, are actually most at risk of being excluded from UID, and there is no evidence that biometric identification has curtailed corruption. The newly-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi lambasted the UID program as a candidate but in July did an about-face, calling for the enrollment process to be expedited and supporting a UID-linked social assistance program. In all likelihood, the world’s largest experiment in biometric identification will continue.