The Government Has Biometric Data on a Billion People

If the government has iris-scans, photographs, fingerprints, and addresses on file for 98 percent of its citizens, is privacy dead? It’s a question people in India had good reason to ponder last week after a newspaper claimed government staffers had sold unauthorized access to a giant database containing basic personal details of nearly every person in the country — read: more than a billion people.


The breached database was connected to Aadhaar, India’s ambitious biometric digital ID program that lets people prove who they are with a simple fingerprint scan. That technology has been a godsend for India’s poorest, many of whom lack birth certificates or other documentation, which has forced them historically either to forego government benefits or to rely on extortionary middlemen to get them.

Aadhaar promises to boost efficiency and cut fraud. But there are two big questions: first, how do you protect this much sensitive data from snoops or cybercriminals? As last week’s story shows, big data is a big target. And second, surrendering your information to the government is OK so long as the government intends to use that data for helpful purposes. But what if that changes? Who keeps an eye on that? The tradeoff between efficiency and security/privacy is an increasingly urgent political issue for governments — and people and corporations — around the world.

On the latest episode of Bank of America's That Made All the Difference podcast, Ken Burns explores the opportunity to come out of this moment as better versions of ourselves — and reveals whether a film about this year is in the cards.

Listen to the new episode here.

The twin explosions at Beirut's port on Tuesday were so powerful that the aftershocks reverberated as far as the Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 150 miles away. The specter of fire and smoke was such that many suggested on social media that Beirut had experienced a nuclear blast.

In the days ahead, more details will come to light about why a deadly cache of materials was haphazardly stashed at a port warehouse, and why Lebanon's government failed to secure the site. So, what comes next for crisis-ridden Lebanon?

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Former Spanish King Juan Carlos I's decision to leave the country after being investigated for corruption has reignited the debate over the future of the monarchy in Spain. Opinions are divided between mostly older Spaniards who defend the institution's role as a symbol of national unity, and the younger generations and nationalist regions who want Spain to become a republic. More than three quarters of the world's countries are now republics, but 44 still have a king or queen as their head of state — among them the 16 Commonwealth countries officially ruled by British Queen Elizabeth II and 5 countries where the sovereign is all-powerful. We take a look at which countries remain monarchies today, and those that sent their royals packing in the post-World War II waves of decolonization and republicanism.

Modi riles up his base: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday set the first stone for a new Hindu temple to be built over the remains of a Mughal-era mosque in Uttar Pradesh state. The site, in the town of Ayodhya, has been disputed for decades by Hindus and Muslims, but the Supreme Court last November ruled, based on archeological findings, that construction of the temple could begin. The ruling dismayed many of India's 180 million Muslims, who worry that Modi — who was accompanied at the ceremony by Mohan Bhagwat, an ultranationalist Hindu activist whose followers helped to destroy the old mosque amid a wave of sectarian violence in 1992 — wants to replace India's secular foundations with his more explicitly Hindu vision of the country's identity. Although months ago Modi saw sizable protests over a controversial new citizenship law that discriminated against Muslims, he has so far proven to be extremely resilient and remains widely popular in India.

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280 million: Democratic candidate Joe Biden plans to spend $280 million on campaign ads in his battle against US President Donald Trump. Although Trump trails the former vice president by 7 points in an average of national polls, the incumbent has set aside less than half that amount for ads of his own.

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