History Lesson

India’s tryst with biometrics began back in 1858

What eventually led to the largest biometric database...and major privacy concerns.

India may be split down the middle now over the correctness of making Aadhaar, the identity project that stories the biometrics of citizens and residents, but it all began a long, long time ago, right here.

After all, the first time that fingerprints were collected anywhere in the world was way back in 1858, at Jangipur (then called Jungipoor), Bengal, when India was under British rule. In fact, it wasn’t merely fingerprints.

Sir William James Herschel, Chief Magistrate of the Hooghly district in Jungipoor, was the first to use a handprint to seal official documents for a government deal with a local businessman, Rajyadhar Konai. Herschel found this to be a reliable way to avoid fraud, as the uniqueness of the prints could prove the identity of the person(s) involved. He adopted the practice for all contracts.

Rajyadhar Konai's handprint
Rajyadhar Konai's handprint

The local people believed that the use of their hands and personal contact with the documents was binding. Thus, for the first time, a wide-scale use of fingerprints was established as a means of identification.

Later, scientists such as Paul-Jean Coulier and Thomas Taylor developed the science of fingerprinting further, leading to methods of preservation of the prints, and to their use in solving crimes.

In June, 1897, the first fingerprint bureau in the world was established in Kolkata under the Inspector General of Police, Edward Richard Henry, whose Henry System of fingerprint classification is at times used even today.

Aadhaar is currently the world’s largest biometric identity database.

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