The U.S. State Department showed immense interest in the Unique Identification (UID) project being implemented by the Government of India and wanted to know details including “the name, model, and version of the biometric collection devices used for the ID.” The office of the Secretary of State, on December 17, 2009, sent a cable (240481: secret/noforn) under the name of Hillary Clinton asking the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi to find out the motivation behind the project and to collect as much information on it as possible.

The Government of India constituted the UID Authority of India (UIDAI) in January 2009 to provide all residents of India with a unique identification number and create a database containing biometric details, photographs and other information. A Cabinet Committee on UIDAI was formed on October 22, 2009.

‘Target' for extremists

The ostensible reason behind the interest in the U.S. was that the project “could present a vulnerable target for regional extremist groups — such as Lashkar e-Tayyiba — who could obtain fraudulent Indian ID cards during the large-scale enrolment for use in travel or as breeder documents to apply for passports.”

Hence, the State Department wanted to know what security features would be incorporated in the card, and anti-fraud measures adopted, and if any encryption method would be used. It wanted to know whether the standards would meet International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) norms.

The ICAO is a specialised agency of the United Nations with 190 contracting states, mandated to promote safe and efficient international air travel. It periodically recommends standards for aspects of air travel. Its recommendations have included machine readable travel documents with biometric enhancements.

Use in other sectors

It was clear from the cable that the U.S. interest in the UID project was not limited to anti-fraud measures. It was keen to know “what is India's strategic plan for utilizing biometric ID card technology in the military, law enforcement, and private sectors.” There was particular interest to know how the biometric card would be used at the borders, ports and airports, and whether it would be used to issue passports. The Embassy in Delhi was asked to find out the following: “Which foreign countries and/or corporations are assisting in the development of the ID card? Which biometric systems (i.e. fingerprints, facial recognition, iris scan, etc.) will be incorporated into the card? What systems, databases, or portals will the named biometric ID card collection devices in India communicate with?”

Specific instructions were given to Embassy officials to report on any efforts to ‘“spoof' or defeat biometric enrolment, such as fingerprint alteration.” The State Department impressed on them that their valuable inputs would be “incorporated into a strategic assessment for senior US policymakers on the regional implications in South Asia of the biometric ID program.”

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)

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