Claiming that it is an attempt to ensure everyone receive the welfare and services due them, India today began forcing each of its 1.14 billion people to register with an online database. Using biometric data and personal information to authenticate, this system will assign a 12 digit number to each Indian. The claim that such a system will prevent fraud, increase efficiency and help the Indian on the street strains credulity given the government’s actions over the past several months.

In rapid succession, India has threatenedRIM if they do not decrypt their Blackberry users’ information; they subsequently expanded the threat to every single company with a site or tool that uses encryption. That, along with the government’s inability to clean a sink, makes their motivations . . . suspect.

Although the project is being called elective, the ability of any employer or any government official to demand the ID makes it mandatory. The 12-digit number will be listed on, or embedded in, all major governmental cards, such as driver’s licenses.

The project is being assisted by both domestic and diaspora technicians, including officials from the photo-sharing service Snapfish and the search engines Google and Yahoo, Sun and Intel. It is being led by Nandan Nilekani, the former CEO of Infosys. Infosys was the pioneer in off-shoring tech work to India.

The project is scheduled to take at least five years and cost over $250 million.

Given the energy and inventiveness of both criminals and under-paid officials; the distance between, say Madurai and New Delhi; and the unreliability of India’s high tech communications backbone, one tends to wonder how long it will be before a large-scale disenfranchisement of the already put-upon Indian underclass will take.

The Nilekani-authored bill to “guarantee” privacy (which has yet to be passed by the country’s parliament), stands at odds with the rancor the Indian government has expressed at such basic privacy considerations as user retention of data on their own handheld computing devices.

Although quite possibly misguided regardless, such an attempt to dial the poor into the life of the country might be laudatory, if not for the Indian government’s clear and consistent antagonism toward privacy. If this system does get up and running, look for a steep increase in human rights arrests, especially among the poor and rural, and in the media sector.

India mosaic by Dinesh Cyanam | Bangalore photo by Akash Bhattacharya | story via WSJ