Tuesday, August 18, 2009

UID Numbering in Indian Context

Now that Nandan has talked about some details (see my earlier post) on UID numbering, I wanted to share some interesting thoughts on numbering.

As he said, ID itself is going to be a random number. But, how random? I suppose we will surely create non-sequential, random numbers from a large and sparse domain (total set of all possible numbers with a particular number of digits). We surely don't want one up numbers for everyone in a village, do we? Why Random? We believe that this number should not be derived from any personal information.

Should it have alphabets too? We decided not to have alphabets (and hence Nandan's reference to number). It is just easier since most folks in India don't read English and alphabets just look like another picture to them!! We can as well use a picture of an elephant or a flower, they wouldn't care. Numbers are also tough for pure native speakers. But, we need to make some decision, I suppose.

How big the number should be? Especially if we want non-sequential, non-reusable, random number to cover for next 100 years?! World population is predicted to be at around 9 billion in next 30-40 years, if we have more than about 12 digits, we should be really good. We are still in design. So, no details I can share yet.

Now comes the real fun part. Everyone wants (especially our VVIPS) an "interesting" number. What interests them can be different too. For example, I have heard that no one wants a number that adds up to 8 in Tamil Nadu for some numerology related issue. This can be daunting if we have all these people coming back and requesting for another number. What about other "good looking" numbers such as 1234... or 1111... etc. If we can't avoid VVIPS insisting on these, may be UIDAI can officially "sell" these special numbers and make some money!!

In India, we seem to find a meaning in a random number. So, it's going to be a challenge indeed!


  1. Really daunting indeed if everybody insists on a preferential number! But i have heard that most people (not only in India) want to be totally disassociated with the number 8. God knows why!

  2. I was speaking with one of the senior guys at a multi-national Bank yesterday. He was saying that they did work around the country wide account numbering scheme a bit in Coimbatore to allocate "better" numbers!!!

    By the way, I don't think Airtel or other phone companies bother about this. So, if people are OK with random phone numbers, they should be fine with this too.

    Also, one can find some way to get "8" out of any number (ends with 8, starts with 8, adds up to 8, add up all numbers and divide by 3 to get 8, etc.). So, there is no way, we can avoid all such possibilities.

  3. I think telcos offer the option of choosing your preferred numbers at a cost. The logic is simple - when people are superstitious about numbers there is money to be made :. One q - wont numbers be as alien as alphabets to the illiterate ?

  4. Yes, some mobile providers do offer to play with last 4 digits or so. Haven't heard this option for land line numbers. But, with UID we may not have so much flexibility to offer custom numbers. We will see!

    Numbers are more common due to usage of coins and notes! So, some familiarity can be assumed compared to English alphabets.

  5. BTW alphabets also appear in Serial number of Notes.
    A look at how "Google Document" generates email ids for document upload through email may have some clues for solving the billion UID problem.

  6. Again, reverting to the number 8 phobia, i am told this number is sort of banned in Tamil Nadu, for example RTO offices here do not issue a registration number for vehicles totalling 8 (unless maybe if people insist on that). Only for numbers that total 8 and not for those starting or ending with 8. Don't know how far this ban is true but ive surely heard about it from certain sources.

  7. Who knows - we could probably even have a make-your-own-sudoku-with-your-UID game sites!

  8. I wonder, as part of mammoth project as this, why don't we do away with all cards like Driver's license, Pan Card, ration card and for that matter credit cards and come up with one "Master Master Card". There'll be plethora of possibilities, an individual's identity, history, likes, dislikes available at a click (these statistics are still available scattered over CBIL history, traffic records, voter id, Internet profiles etc). Of course this will have its flip side but which new idea doesn't?

  9. @Rohit : We can't do away with all these card on day one. Eventually some of these cards may go. It is tough to create one super card with "all" information in it (for e.g. ration card has family info etc.). It also raises significant privacy issues. For now, it is impractical to approach it that way.

    May be 30-40 years from now, we may have an option to embed a chip and won't have to carry anything!! Who knows!

    @Satheesh : "make-your-own-sudoku-with-your-UID" surely sounds fun!

  10. @Pramod's reply: Art imitates life but technologically, quite often, life imitates art as well like Tom cruise in minority report inspired this http://www.ted.com/talks/pattie_maes_demos_the_sixth_sense.html

    There'll be galactic challenges in doing away with cards but which government secret agency doesn't encroach privacy (for good). My motivation is that the delta required by UID project to take this in its stride would be minuscule vis-a-vis starting a bespoke project on these lines in future. We may not do away with all cards but we should be able to club Identity + Voter + License + PAN for better, with information level restricted to respective government agency (we gotta trust someone :)).
    PROS are seemingly overwhelming over CONS.

    Apologies for digressing from main topic but couldn't curb the curio.

  11. It is interesting to know how unique are the challenges of UID project. Not only need to deal with technical aspects but Indian System too.

    I wish in place of changing your design according to wrongly adopted system you should be able to improve the system.

    We have high hopes from all of you.I strongly believe this project is not only about providing unique identification to Indians but it is a step toward collaboration of Highly talented and educated Corporate sector of India and still engrossed in bureaucratic old fashioned political India.

  12. I have some questions regarding regarding UID. If the UID is just a number and not associated to a smart-card, how do we make sure that UIDs are not faked ? I read on the UID website that there will be tear-away portion of the letter from UID which can be used as a card. However the portion should at least have a bar-code which is difficult to duplicate, otherwise these "cards" would be easy to forge.

    Secondly, if a goverment agency wants to verify the identity of a person who presents a specific UID, what is the procedure ? I didn't find this on the UID FAQ. Do such offices need to have biometric equipment to scan finger-prints/iris in order to do this ? It certainly looks so since these metrics are the ones associated to the ID. But isn't that making the whole exercise hugely expensive ?

    I am still not clear about the verification aspect of the UID, especially since it not tied to a smart card. How does the UIDAI plan to tackle this and the possible forge problem without resorting to smart cards ?

  13. If everybody needs their own customized number, what is the use of this UID?. UID should not become a bussiness for the govt,I hope.If there is any feature of getting our favorite number by paying some thing to the UID issuer, then richness of the people comes on to the screen, then what about common citizens of INDIA, Citizenship same for all, there is no differences between poor n rich wen taking the citizenship into the consideration. Every citizen of INDIA have same and equalent rights in a scheme like UIDAI. Financial sector also very eagerly waiting for this UID,because they want to use this UID into the financial sector of INDIA. Lets see how long it will go on success., Thank you

  14. @Anand, nice to meet up with you in person! By the way, UID does not plan to issue any cards. Just a number. One person can get only one number.

    @Surya, everyone is going to get a random number. No "fancy" numbers for rich people!

    There are some write-up on UIDAI website explaining some of these. Please check out http://uidai.gov.in/

  15. @Pramod, Yes I understood the concept after the meeting at UID office. In fact, I am quite impressed with the parallel of UID and Open-ID except the biometrics part of it. I am planning to write a blog post on my blog comparing UID with Open-ID, perhaps this would be helpful in disambiguation.

  16. People are comfortable with 16 digit numbers, as it is in all standard credit cards. So, if you increase the UID number digits from 12 to 15, it should be acceptable to the public. The advatage is that it will provide one digit correction, if you use Hamming code. A preliminary calculation shows that it can still take care of 100 billion people.