Privacy will be protected under the Unique Identity (UID) project and personal data will not be accessible to everybody, insists Nandan Nilekani, chairperson of the Unique Identification Authority.
"We are also conscious of the privacy issue. In fact the UID database cannot be read by anybody. The only thing you can use it for is authentication. We are making all efforts technically and legally to see privacy is protected," Nilekani, a former Infosys co-founder, told IANS in an interview.
"At the same time we need a larger debate of privacy and what laws we need in the country. Today we don't have any privacy laws," said Nilekani who quit Infosys last year and was handpicked by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to head the authority.
The first of these UIDs for India's billion plus citizens, says Nikelani, is expected to roll out any time between August 2010 and February 2011.
In the just announced union budget, the government allotted an expenditure of Rs.19 billion (US$409 million) for the UID project. A number of Indian service providers and some multinational companies like Microsoft have said they would like to be involved in the project.
Legal experts are sceptical about the protection of private data once the rollout of UID numbers begins towards the latter half of the year as they fear the number, which will be issued based on personal information given by a person, might be leaked to various other agencies.
The centralised nature of data collection inherent in the UID proposal, they fear, heightens the risk of misuse of personal information and therefore potentially violates privacy rights.
"There may be a requirement for certain frameworks but we are cognisant of the issue of privacy and we are making sure of the design and in a way that when it is used, a person's personal details are not divulged," says Nilekani, who was last year in Time 100's list of World's Most Influential People.
For the moment Nilkani maintains that opting for a UID number will be voluntary. However, over the years other agencies could well make it mandatory.
"For a long time, many systems will allow both. But over time as more and more applications require UID for giving the service, people will have to get the number. The UID is a demand-led solution. We expect people to take the number because it is in their interest to do so," he says.
"Some time in the future if some government service says UID is required, then it becomes essential. But that is many years down the road, only after government agencies give you adequate time to come on board."
The project, which will cover even children, is aimed at establishing citizenship, reducing identity-related frauds, addressing security issues and preventing leakages in different government schemes.
"We definitely think it has great value, especially for the poor and the marginalised, because they are the ones that are suffering today due to the lack of acknowledged existence by the state," says Nilekani, who has already met up with officials in 26 states, telecom operators and micro-finance institutions to help build the UID database.
The Authority will identify target groups for various flagship programmes of the United Progressive Alliance government, including the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, the National Rural Health Mission and Bharat Nirman.
"At this point, it will give an identity to a large number of people who are poor and marginalised, who don't have an identity, who are not able to access public services. That is a very important requirement in inclusive growth," Nilekani told IANS.
"Our challenge is to build our database from scratch mainly because we have to collect the biometrics, but the demographic information, if we are able to pre-register from other databases, we will be happy to do that."