THERE are two ways to sign up to Jio, a new and irresistibly priced mobile-telephony service which Mukesh Ambani, the boss of Reliance Industries, a conglomerate, launched in September 2016 and which is luring tens of millions of new customers each month. One way requires a wad of documents, multiple signatures and plenty of patience, since Jio takes days or weeks to go through “know-your-customer” procedures. The second way is magically simple: the person rests a finger on an inch-wide scanner, and if the print matches the identity the customer is claiming, Jio downloads the information it needs from the Indian authorities and activates the phone line within minutes.

Jio is tapping a database called Aadhaar, after the Hindi word for “foundation”. It is a cloud-based ID system that holds the details of over a billion Indians. The government’s purpose in setting it up in 2009 was to help the state correctly direct welfare payments to those entitled to them. By early 2017 all Indian adults should have provided their fingerprints, iris scans, name, birth date, address and gender in return for a single, crucial, 12-digit number.

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