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Culture and technology
18 December 2012

The state is moving to cyberspace and, like it or not, you’re coming too

In this country, big government IT projects have become a bit of a joke – albeit a sick one given the cost to taxpayers. The seeming inability of ministers and civil servants to commission IT systems with any degree of competence was one of the reasons why Labour failed in its attempt to impose ID cards on the nation. It wasn’t solely an issue of civil liberties, we also had every expectation that the technological side of things would be lavishly mishandled.

And yet, around the world, policy makers still have a vision: a digital nirvana in which the interactions of state and citizen are facilitated and integrated via vast and sophisticated computerised databases. In fact, according to a report in the Economic Times, it’s already happening – but see if you can guess in which country: 

  • "D-day is 18 days away. On January 1, the… government will start migrating the delivery of welfare services to a new architecture: straight into an individual's bank account, verified by a unique identification (UID) number… 
  • "The complexity of the exercise will increase manifold as more of [the country] is covered in the other two stages, in April 2013 and April 2014. This will also increase as more programmes are added, especially food, oil, fertiliser and employment." 

Remarkably, the country in question is India.

Reporting in the Financial Times, Tim Harford has more details: 

  • "…a fantastically ambitious UID scheme is taking shape under the gaze of Nandan Nilekani, who made his fortune running Infosys and now holds cabinet rank. The scheme aims to give everyone in the country a number and to be able to identify them through fingerprints and iris scanning, using remote systems that consult a central database over the internet…The growing system already holds more than the combined population of the UK, France and Germany. Nilekani hopes to enrol 600 million of India’s 1.2 billion people by the end of 2014." 

The implications of the Indian project are profound. On the upside the potential benefits are huge. With the ability to accurately identify its citizens, the Indian government can address poverty through direct payments of relatively small sums instead of hugely inefficient schemes like food handouts and fuel subsidies that foster corruption and distort local economies. Also the rural poor get access to financial services for the first time via the mobile phone technology which is allowing the developing world to leapfrog the development of fixed-line infrastructure.

Of course, one has to ask why a country with as many challenges as India is able to procure cheap and effective IT systems providing valuable services to hundreds of millions of people, while we in Britain struggle to do so much as computerise our medical records.

If successful, India’s example will encourage western governments to pursue a similar path. But do we really want to identify ourselves to the state via iris scans and fingerprint readers? The dystopian future depicted in films like Blade Runner may, in some respects, be closer than we think.

Blade Runner, of course, was based on a science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The androids are still some way off, but let’s make sure that our politicians don’t mistake us for the sheep.


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