A biometric database bringing together 1.3 billion individuals, or 18% of the world’s population… This is the incredible challenge that the French company Morpho, a Safran subsidiary, is taking up in India. Concretely, the program, called Aadhaar (base, in Hindi), consists of offering a unique 12-digit identification number to each citizen. This digital identity is secured by taking the biometric data of its owner: the 10 fingerprints, the 2 irises, and a photo of the face. Four years after the start of the operation, the database has just reached the symbolic mark of one billion individuals on file. “Every day, up to 1 million people can be ‘enrolled’ in the system,” says Jessica Westerouen van Meeteren, director of the Government Identity division at Morpho.
Why this giant database? The original idea of the program, launched in 2009 by New Delhi, was to offer an official existence to hundreds of millions of Indians who, lacking an identity card, remained invisible to the administration, and therefore excluded from social assistance programs. In a country with a bloated administration where corruption remains high, money often ended up in the wrong pockets. The identification number should make it possible to correct the problem of identity fraud, but also to open a simplified bank account or to obtain a passport more easily.
The complexity of a space program
To carry out this colossal project, the Indian government created a state agency, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Morpho is one of the suppliers selected by the agency, along with the Japanese NEC and the American L1 (another Safran subsidiary). The French group supplies biometric scanners intended for data recording, but also “deduplication” technology which makes it possible to verify that an individual is not already registered under another number. The system is capable of responding to a million queries per day. “It’s a program of unprecedented complexity in the sector, which can be compared to that of a space program,” assures Jean-Pierre Pellestor, program director at Morpho.
If the project is coming to fruition, it is in large part thanks to the action of one man: Nandan Nikelani, the co-founder of the Indian IT giant Infosys. The powerful businessman, who was the first president of the UIDAI, used all his weight to overcome the legendary burdens of the Indian administration. So much so that the law endorsing the program was not passed in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, until March 16 … six years after the start of registration operations. Nikelani even managed to convince Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was very critical of Aadhaar during the 2014 election campaign, to continue with the project. “Modi finally accelerated it”, we congratulate ourselves at Morpho.
Risque de Big Brother?
However, the program is still not unanimous in India. If more than a billion people have agreed to register in the database, some see it as a potential Big Brother, which could be hijacked to the detriment of the privacy of citizens. “Can the government assure us that Aadhaar and the data collected will not be hijacked like what was done by the NSA in the United States?” Asked Reuters Tathagata Satpathy, a lawyer based in the United States. Odisha (East India). Access to the file for use in connection with “national security” is the subject of particular debate. “The project provides very robust privacy protection, beyond anything that other laws have brought to India,” Nandan Nikelani replied to the Indian Express in mid-March.
In any case, Morpho hopes to surf on the Indian contract to sell other similar systems. “We have ongoing commercial campaigns in other countries on comparable programs, but the size of the Indian project will probably remain unique,” explains Jessica Westerouen van Meeteren. But the good health of Morpho (1.9 billion euros in turnover in 2015, organic growth of 11%) does not prevent the CEO of Safran Philippe Petitcolin from thinking about its future, the division does not having no real synergy with the rest of the group, nor sufficient weight to balance the aeronautical activities. After having put the explosives detection activity (Morpho Detection) up for sale, the group could announce the sale of the entire division in the course of 2016.