The Ladder

A Blog from New America's Asset Building Program

The Largest Biometric Database in the World

Published:  September 2, 2011

Today’s New York Times has a nicely-reported piece on India’s gigantic biometric ID project, detailing its potential to spur economic growth and cut down on corruption through enabling electronic delivery of payments via mobiles and smartcards. As Nandan Nilekani, who is directing the initiative, puts it, the project is like building “a road that in some sense connects every individual to the state.”

I touched on this in March in an op-ed on biometric IDs, and I can’t resist pointing  again to James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State. Scott’s list of the history of this “road,” beginning with state-mandated inherited surnames, lends some perspective:

“The creation of birth and death certificates, more specific addresses (that is, more specific than something like ‘John-on-the-hill’), identity cards, passports, social security numbers, photographs, fingerprints, and, most recently, DNA profiles have superseded the rather crude instrument of the permanent surname. But the surname was a first and crucial step toward making individual citizens officially legible, and along with the photograph, it is still the first fact on documents of identity.”

Add iris scans to that remarkable list. Read the excellent NYT article here.

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