Look to India for prototype of a universal ID card

What if you had an ID card that, if lost or stolen, could not be replicated or used by anyone else because it’s linked to your personal biometric data – fingerprints and retinal scan?

That card would be completely private, with a unique identifying number. It would give easy access to any benefits the holder is due – think Social Security, veterans or food stamps – because they would go directly to a bank linked to the card. Where an ID is required to vote, the card would provide incontrovertible proof that the voter is eligible. It would corroborate that the holder is a citizen who could be hired for jobs requiring citizenship.

Impossible? Hardly. More than 770 million citizens of India already are using such a card – called Aadhaar there. Although signing up for the card is voluntary and originally targeted at India’s poorer citizens as a more efficient way of delivering public benefits, it’s proved so popular and useful that many in the middle class have signed up for it.

For the Rev. Andrew Young, whose foundation would like to see Washington state be a U.S. laboratory for such a card, the link to his efforts on behalf of the poor is clear. The card would make it easier and safer for low-income Americans who might not have a bank or even a home address to access their benefits.

That’s why liberals would like it, but Young thinks it’s something that conservatives would support because of its voluntary nature and the fact that it could help decrease benefits waste and fraud: Only the person entitled to the aid would have access to it. Consider how that would affect just the black market in SNAP (food stamp) benefits. A person couldn’t sell their benefits because they would be linked to a card that not only has the recipient’s photo on it but includes scannable biometric information.

An important component in India’s Aadhaar card, and would be absolutely necessary if a similar card were to be used here, is its confidentiality. Many people won’t sign up for it if they knew the police would have access to its biometric information. As in India, it would have to be administered by a completely separate and independent agency that would resist police requests for user information.

Young, who was in the state recently for the governor’s prayer breakfast, says Washington is the logical place to incubate the card in the U.S. because it’s a trend-setter and because companies in this state pioneered the technology used in India’s card. “Why not take the lead?” he asks.

As the world’s largest democracy, India may have something to teach this one when it comes to a workable universal ID card.