Technology has given governments around the world new tools to monitor their citizens. In China, the government is rolling out ways to use facial recognition and big data to track people, aiming to inject itself further into everyday life. Many countries, including Britain, deploy closed-circuit cameras to monitor their populations.
But India’s program is in a league of its own, both in the mass collection of biometric data and in the attempt to link it to everything — traffic tickets, bank accounts, pensions, even meals for undernourished schoolchildren.
“No one has approached that scale and that ambition,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, a professor and research director of Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, who has studied biometric ID systems around the world. “It has been hailed, and justifiably so, as an extraordinary triumph to get everyone registered.”
Critics fear that the government will gain unprecedented insight into the lives of all Indians.
In response, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other champions of the program say that Aadhaar is India’s ticket to the future, a universal, easy-to-use ID that will reduce this country’s endemic corruption and help bring even the most illiterate into the digital age.
“It’s the equivalent of building interstate highways,” said Nandan Nilekani, the technology billionaire who was tapped by the government in 2009 to build the Aadhaar system. “If the government invested in building a digital public utility and that is made available as a platform, then you actually can create major innovations around that.”
The potential uses — from surveillance to managing government benefit programs — have drawn interest elsewhere. Sri Lanka is planning a similar system, and Britain, Russia and the Philippines are studying it, according to the Indian government.
Aadhaar, which means “foundation” in English, was initially intended as a difficult-to-forge ID to reduce fraud and improve the delivery of government welfare programs.
But Mr. Modi, who has promoted a “digital India” vision since his party took power in 2014, has vastly expanded its ambitions.
The poor must scan their fingerprints at the ration shop to get their government allocations of rice. Retirees must do the same to get their pensions. Middle-school students cannot enter the water department’s annual painting contest until they submit their identification.
In some cities, newborns cannot leave the hospital until their parents sign them up. Even leprosy patients, whose illness damages their fingers and eyes, have been told they must pass fingerprint or iris scans to get their benefits.
The Modi government has also ordered Indians to link their IDs to their cellphone and bank accounts. States have added their own twists, like using the data to map where people live. Some employers use the ID for background checks on job applicants.
“Aadhaar has added great strength to India’s development,” Mr. Modi said in a January speech to military cadets. Officials estimate that taxpayers have saved at least $9.4 billion from Aadhaar by weeding out “ghosts” and other improper beneficiaries of government services.
Opponents have filed at least 30 cases against the program in India’s Supreme Court. They argue that Aadhaar violates India’s Constitution — and, in particular, a unanimous court decision last year that declared for the first time that Indians had a fundamental right to privacy.
Rahul Narayan, one of the lawyers challenging the system, said the government was essentially building one giant database on its citizens. “There has been a sort of mission creep to it all along,” he said.
The court has been holding extensive hearings and is expected to make a ruling in the spring.
The government argues that the universal ID is vital in a country where hundreds of millions of people do not have widely accepted identification documents.
“The people themselves are the biggest beneficiaries,” said Ajay B. Pandey, the Minnesota-trained engineer who leads the Unique Identification Authority of India, the government agency that oversees the system. “This identity cannot be refused.”
Businesses are also using the technology to streamline transactions.