Mistaken Identities

There’s a moment in Arnold Bennett’s 1923 novel Riceyman Steps when the scullery maid Elsie, having secretly taken in her sick lover, discovers that besides being a down-and-out ex-convict, Joe has none of the documents that an interwar Englishman might rely on to raise him up again. Elsie is rightly shocked. ‘The absence of the sacred “papers” disturbed her. Every man in her world could, when it came to the point, produce papers of some sort from somewhere – army-discharge, pension documents, testimonials, birth certificate, etc., etc. Even the tramps … had their papers to which they rightly attached the greatest importance.’ The reason for Joe’s paperlessness, it turns out, is no more than the simple bodily exigency of hunger. ‘I sold ’em yesterday morning,’ he tells Elsie, ‘to a man as came to meet a man as came out of Pentonville same time as me … he gave me four-and-six, and then we went and had a meal after all that skilly and cocoa and dry bread.’

Since Bennett’s day, the link between bodies and papers has been made tighter by technical advances, but the logic remains the same: once identity is established by documentation, it’s ready for exchange. We accept the need for state-administered databases to secure our identities, partly because we fear all those troublingly classless and unclassified sans-papiers who remain outside that logic (terrorists, migrants, the displaced, the destitute), and partly because we believe that our identities belong to us. The catch, of course, is that if that’s true — if my identity is mine to keep, sell, or lose — then whatever it is, it clearly isn’t me. 

For more than two years now, the biggest centralised identity processing scheme in history has been underway in India. Almost a quarter of all Indian citizens now has a 12-digit Aadhaar number. That’s about 300 million people, or a Pennsylvania less than the entire population of the United States. Aadhaar is Hindi for ‘foundation’, in the sense of a supporting structure, the idea presumably being that fingerprints and iris scans, coupled with records of personal details, will act as a stable basis for increasingly complex networks of bureaucratic and financial transactions in the subcontinent. Ultimately, your individual number will enable you to get a bank account, access local government welfare provision, claim your pension, and so on.

There’s a logo, too: a yellow sun surrounding a red fingerprint. Well, more like a third of a fingerprint, and there’s not quite enough of it in view to say exactly what kind. Ulnar loop? Radial loop? Whorl? The design was chosen by competition, with Atul Sudhakarrao Pande receiving Rs. 1 lakh – about £1,200 – for his entry. You’d have to call it an improvement, this slow progress of identification technology from the branding-iron to the brand-image. All the same, I’m not sure I’d have chosen a logo with a partial print.

And it’s not all going quite as smoothly as the press conferences and photo-ops with smiling rural Indians suggest. The Indian government recently admitted that about 380,000 Aadhaar numbers had already been cancelled because some of the staff tasked with enrolling citizens had ‘misused’ the process. The problem is what’s called ‘biometric exception’. There’s a clause in the Aadhaar enrolment procedure whereby those with non-typical features can get an identification number without the full range of biometric scans. As the ‘Aadhaar Authentication Framework’ puts it, ‘There will always be a set of population who will be temporarily or permanently excluded from a specific biometric system.’ The word used in the framework to describe this set is ‘outliers’. You might be an outlier if you’re missing a limb, or a finger, or an eye; if you have cataracts or a skin condition; if your hands are too heavily calloused from manual labour for your fingerprints to be read. You might also be an outlier if your features are undefined, that is, if you’re very young, or very old. The fraudulent operators seem to have used the leeway granted by the exception clause to enrol some people more than once, duplicating records and billing the fees for the enrolments. As Arnold Bennett’s impoverished Londoners knew, there’s money in black-market identification. 

Like these local employees, the scheme’s corporate partners from the West know an opportunity when they see one. The consultancy firms Accenture and Ernst & Young have been engaged to provide services and advice to the identification authority, the UIDAI. Another contractor is MorphoTrust USA, formerly known as L-1 Identity Solutions, which supplies hardware and software for the Aadhaar’s biometric scans. MorphoTrust is a subsidiary of the French aerospace and defence group Safran. Other subsidiaries make jet engines, navigation systems, and components for missiles and drones, bringing Safran companies a total net profit for 2012 of around €1bn.


In a way, India’s turn towards biometrics is more like a return, since it was in the British Raj that fingerprinting first became a tool of 19th-century colonial government. Indeed, the earliest examples of fingerprint evidence in the modern sense were the hand-prints taken by British officials to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate recipients of government pensions after the uprising of 1857, when Hindu and Muslim army conscripts mutinied after discovering that their rifle grease contained the fat of both cows and pigs.

After the colonial authorities had improved the technique of fingerprinting, it was brought back to England as a tool for Scotland Yard in the identification of criminals at home. By 1902, when Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson investigated ‘The Norwood Builder’, fingerprint evidence was so commonplace that Conan Doyle could neatly subvert it by having Holmes spot a forged print. ‘It was the simplest thing in the world,’ says Holmes, for the criminal ‘to take a wax impression, … to moisten it in as much blood as he could get from a pin-prick, and to put the mark upon the wall during the night, either with his own hand or with that of his housekeeper.’

The man who was primarily responsible for giving fingerprint evidence its credibility was Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin and the man to whom we owe the term ‘eugenics’. Galton’s book Finger Prints was published in 1892. ‘In civilised lands, and in peaceable times,’ he wrote, ‘the chief use of a sure means of identification is to benefit society by detecting rogues, rather than to establish the identity of men who are honest.’ Needless to say, he did not consider India a civilised land.

But Galton wasn’t the first to use fingerprinting. He had learned the technique from Sir William Herschel, a British civil servant in the Indian administration, and Herschel himself had probably picked it up from the local Bengali custom of tip sahi, or signing by finger-mark on contracts and official documents. Taken up as a tool of Imperial governance, that local custom was easily adapted to serve the ends of bureaucratic administrators tasked with controlling a wayward colonial population. Then, as now, the procedure had both a civil and a security function, with the civil function – providing social welfare, weeding out corruption – helping to obscure wider implications for civil liberties. A line in the official Aadhaar guidance for biometric operators caught my eye: ‘Handling Exceptions is About GAINING THE RESIDENTS TRUST!’

In advocating for the use of biometric technology in general, Galton quoted the French director of prisons Louis Herbette: ‘To fix the human personality,’ Herbette had said, ‘to give to each human being an identity, an individuality that can be depended upon with certainty, lasting, unchangeable, always recognisable and easily adduced, this appears to be in the largest sense the aim of the new method.’

The question is: do we want to be fixed? Lasting, unchangeable, always recognisable and easily adduced? Galton’s project reflected a more general Victorian ambivalence about reinvention and self-fashioning. But there’s also a sleight-of-hand involved when he approvingly quotes Herbette to the effect that certain human beings need to be given not identification, but an identity, even an individuality. It’s the kind of thing one would expect from a director of prisons like Herbette, or from a Victorian Englishman like Galton, who spent a great deal of effort in vain to discover connections between fingerprint patterns and race. Somehow, it’s more surprising to find the same rhetorical move in an Indian Government press release from January 2012, where the Aadhaar project is described as ‘ensuring inclusive growth by providing a form of identity to those who do not have any identity’. Well, perhaps it will. But as India’s experiment presses on, the identity-wallahs might do wisely to take counsel from Bennett’s London servants, who find in the end that being identifiable and having an identity aren’t quite the same thing.