India has embarked upon the creation of the world's largest biometric database, in which some 1.2 billion people will be assigned 12-digit numbers that, in conjunction with a thumbprint, can be used for identification purposes -- allowing people, far from their home villages, to obtain welfare benefits, open a bank account or get a cellphone. The new Aadhaar system, intended to pull an estimated 400 million Indians out of poverty, can verify one's identity within eight seconds using inexpensive hand-held devices linked to a mobile phone network.

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