Sri Lanka to adopt India’s Aadhaar digital identity scheme

Biometric IDs for all, cross-border interoperability not on the table

Sri Lanka has decided to adopt a national digital identity framework based on biometric data and will ask India if it can implement that nation’s Aadhaar scheme.

The island nation had previous indicated it would work with the Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP), an organisation based in India that offers tools governments can use to create and manage digital identities.

But a list of Cabinet decisions published on Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s government announced its intention to ask India for a grant of its scheme, which has been widely interpreted as meaning India share Aadhaar technology.

Aadhaar sees Indian citizens and residents issued a twelve-digit identity number, linked to either a fingerprint or iris scan, and is used to authenticate users of government services. The Unique Identification Authority of India also offers authentication-as-a-service using Aadhaar, so that organisations like banks can verify the identity of those who seek to open an account.

The system has scaled to over 1.3 billion users. It’s also had some issues such as the 2017 leak of over 100 million users’ payment card details. That incident was blamed on security problems at a third party able to access Aadhaar data rather than problems with the scheme itself, yet it remains possible for Aadhaar data to be shared with entities outside India’s government to enable the kind of authentication-as-a-service scenarios outlined above. In 2021 Aadhaar was even trialed for real-time identification of Indians as they waited in queues for COVID-19 jabs .

If Sri Lanka’s government is not aware of Aadhaar’s colorful past, it won’t be long before someone points it out given that the Cabinet decision requires India and Sri Lanka to agree a memorandum of understanding to arrange the tech transfer. While those negotiations take place, critics may find their moment.

By happy co-incidence, Sri Lanka’s decision came on the same day that the Philippines government signed off on a Circular calling on all public agencies to integrate the PhilSys digital identity scheme that was initiated in 2020 and then stuttered after a registration portal struggled to cope with traffic demands.

Despite such issues, over 20 million PhilSys registrations have been completed. The Philippines’s cart-before-horse approach means government agencies have been told to start preparing their processes, databases, systems, and services “to facilitate interconnectivity, make transacting with the government convenient and cost-efficient for the benefit of the general public”. ®

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