The unexpected use of a biometric device

During my visit to India in 2013, Andhra Pradesh was experimenting with a system of authenticating cash payments in programs like NREGA and old-age pensions using a biometric device. The device had a fingerprint scanner to authenticate the identity of the user, and it also had a SIM card through which the it communicates to a centralised database, from which the post office downloads a list of people and the amount that must be paid to them.

When a pensioner comes to the post office, the official first enters the pensioner’s identity number. Based on the downloaded data, she will then get a prompt on the screen with the total amount that should be paid to the pensioner. After that, the pensioner is required to authenticate her identity with a fingerprint, receive the payment and also a printout from the device on the transaction. All of these steps got completed within one minute.

The unexpected use

The few postmasters I met (all of them were men) argued that “biometric” has made their work easier, and were completely in favour of it. When they described how it made their life easier, none of them talked about authenticating identities; after all, given the intensity of personal connections and rural areas, that is hardly an issue. Instead, they focused on the fact that they could now do a transaction merely by plugging in one number and they did not have to deal with collecting payment information from the head post office, entering it into a ledger for each person, consulting it when the beneficiary came for payment and noting that information in a passbook maintained by the beneficiary. In essence, the biometric device connected wirelessly to a database did all this for them. All these functions, of course, can be built in even without the fingerprint scanner.

What this demonstrated for me is the power that simple portable devices connected wirelessly could have in enhancing automation of offices in far-flung areas, where costlier computers are difficult to acquire, maintain and use. Unlike a computer, the wireless device has a simple interface that anyone could learn in spite of age, education or other skills.  Many of its functions could be handled by a simple mobile phone.

Such simple interfaces are capable of dealing with a wide range of routine functions in public programs. Apart from simplifying the work involved for the officials, it also enables better management and accountability in public programs, since such a process would enable us to digitise accounting, and make it available easily to the wider public for transparency. This idea of using simple wireless devices for accounting is now catching up through the use of smart phones. Many government programs have started issuing mobile phones to their workers through which they collect data on a real-time basis. There is a huge potential to expand this, and further experimentation with hardware and user interface to handle routine use and more complex uses can help us get there.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.