In India, a massive effort is underway to collect biometric identity information for each of the country’s 1.2 billion people. The incredible plan, dubbed the “mother of all e-governance projects” by the Economic Times, has stirred controversy in India and beyond, raising serious concerns about the privacy and security of individuals’ personal data.

The plan is moving ahead at a clip under the auspices of the National Population Register (NPR) and the Unique ID (UID) programs, separately governed initiatives that have an agreement to integrate the data they collect to build the world’s largest biometric database. Upon enrollment, individuals are issued 12-digit unique ID numbers on chip-based identity cards. For residents who lack the necessary paperwork to obtain certain kinds of employment or government services, there’s strong incentive to get a unique ID. While the UID program is voluntary, enrollment in the NPR program is mandatory for all citizens.

The NPR program's stated objectives are to streamline the delivery of government services such as welfare or subsidies, prevent identity fraud, and facilitate economic development, but some critics contend that the plan has its roots in an agenda focused on national security. Indian journalist Aman Sethi argues in a New York Times Op-Ed that the NPR originated with a 1992 government campaign to deport undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants, and that the creation of a comprehensive identity database was intended “exclusively to assist law enforcement.” And while UID was originally created to target India’s poorest 200 million citizens to facilitate service delivery, it has since been expanded to cover the country’s entire population.

The UID program is administered by the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI), an executive body created to oversee the issuance of unique ID numbers for the stated purpose of facilitating access to benefits and services. At the helm of UID is Nandan Nilekani, a billionaire who made his fortune in the tech industry before ascending to his current role as chairman of the UIDAI...