INTERVIEW: TECH5’s Rahul Parthe and Machiel Van Der Harst on Biometrics, National ID and More

INTERVIEW: TECH5's Rahul Parthe and Machiel Van Der Harst on Biometrics, National ID and More

In recent years the scale of biometrics projects has changed dramatically thanks to the evolution of core technologies and concepts around national ID. That’s why Peter O’Neill, President of FindBiometrics, was so pleased to sit down with TECH5‘s founders: Chairman Rahul Parthe and CEO Machiel Van Der Harst – two individuals who played integral roles in nation-shaping civil ID programs in India and Indonesia, refugee ID programs with the UN, and the industry as a whole.

Their conversation delves into TECH5’s history and the concept of Foundational ID, a critical component in economic and social inclusion. They go on to discuss the massive success of AADHAR, and its role in changing our conception of large-scale biometric deployments. The interview illuminates the relationship between national ID and functional IDs used in other verticals, lays out TECH5’s ambitious plans for the future, and much more.

Read the full interview with Rahul Parthe, Founder and Chairman, TECH5, & Machiel Van Der Harst, Founder and CEO, TECH5:

Peter O’Neill, President, FindBiometrics: Well first I must tell you how pleased I am to interview you today, you both have such a wealth of global large-scale biometric deployments. It was a real pleasure to meet you at ID4Africa in June and I’m looking forward to our discussion today. To start things off, could you please tell me about the origins of the company? 

Rahul Parthe, Founder and Chairman, TECH5: Peter, it is always a pleasure to talk to you and thanks for giving us the opportunity to share some more about our backgrounds and work to date. In terms of our name, TECH5 stands for technology for inclusion which represents our founding mission and core values, particularly the emphasis we place on social and economic inclusion. As a company, TECH5 was established by biometrics-industry veterans and our team is currently made up of 10+ nationalities based in different offices around the world. We are headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, while sales and research and development offices are spread across the USA, Europe and Asia.

We are most proud of our deep knowledge and experience across multiple biometric application verticals and fields, and most importantly our understanding of how the industry and the needs of our customers are evolving. The goal of the company is to bring all core technologies under one umbrella and leverage the advancements in AI to leapfrog the performance of other traditional approaches in biometric algorithms.

As you know, we are a company focused on biometric core technology, which means 80 percent of our staff is made up of technical specialists. We also invest heavily and continuously in research and development in order to keep our technology current and cutting-edge. You can see this from our success in NIST evaluations for all the modalities that we offer.  

Finally, I would say our mission is to enable our partners and customers to build large-scale solutions, not only in the most cost-efficient and effective way, but also in a socially and technologically responsible way; we are motivated by tailoring our solutions to the customer’s exact needs and guiding them throughout project life-cycles. Essentially, we are taking all of our experience and feeding it into a company that will empower our customers and partners to build  state-of-the-art, scalable and responsible digital identity solutions.

INTERVIEW: TECH5's Rahul Parthe and Machiel Van Der Harst on Biometrics, National ID and More
TECH5 – a Technologies For Inclusion Company

FindBiometrics: Thank you very much Rahul. We also think it is very important to work with companies that have, as you mentioned, deep knowledge of these very complex systems.  Can you describe some of the major developments that you’ve seen over the last couple of years and what kind of role biometrics play especially around Foundational ID?

Rahul Parthe, Founder and Chairman, TECH5: From our perspective, Foundational ID is not just a buzzword. In fact, we believe that Foundational ID is the backbone of any country’s civil registry and plays a major role in economic and social development. If applied correctly, it can reach all elements of society enabling each and every person to participate in economic development. Our mission is to operate in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals; we believe in leaving no person behind and again this goes back to our company’s name – technology for inclusion. Inclusion is what enables each and every citizen to participate in this process. In addition to this, we believe that systems should be built responsibly with a strong emphasis on security and privacy. This is the fundamental way to ensure that we do not put control into the hands of any one institution, which can become very problematic when you are trying to implement such programs. Today, it is important to recognize that biometrics have bridged gaps in civil registry programs and have enabled secure and convenient access to welfare programs and private services.

Machiel Van Der Harst, Founder and CEO, TECH5: Let me add a couple of things. Rahul and I have many years of experience in the design and implementation of biometric programs around the world and when we founded TECH5, we analysed what had been implemented and achieved in different programs. We learned a lot, particularly from programs we were personally involved in, and so we set up TECH5  to develop technologies that would deliver fairer implementation, primarily targeting beneficiaries of biometric programs, so that they can access government services and benefits. We have taken our expertise and experience from what we have personally gone through to determine how these technologies should be built and implemented.

Peter O’Neill, President, FindBiometrics: Thank you Machiel, you have raised some interesting questions there. I’d like to have our readers understand a little bit more about your team and the expertise you have especially in these kinds of large-scale projects because these are unique and they’re fairly new, although AADHAR has been around for quite some time now. Could you just give our readers a sense of the scope of some of these programs that you have both been involved with because it’s very unique to have a company with two individuals with your depth of understanding of projects of this size?

Rahul Parthe, Founder and Chairman, TECH5: Well, as co-founders, Machiel and I have extensive experience in large-scale programs but, in addition to this, many members of the team have also worked on key phases in such programs. Personally, I have been very fortunate to play a significant role in two of the world’s largest biometric programs. As a lead architect for India’s AADHAR program, I was involved from day one of the program. Today, as you know, India’s AADHAR program has 1.3 billion people enrolled with three modalities.

Subsequently, I was able to take this experience and build the next successful program for the Indonesian National ID, which has another astonishing 190 million people enrolled with three modalities. These are feathers in the cap, but apart from that I have also been involved in many –what we would now call – small or medium-sized programs. It is funny how these days when we refer to a population of 30 million people, we refer to it as a ‘small project’. If you had spoken to me a decade ago this would have been an incredibly daunting task! But now, a program of 30-50 million people is very straightforward and doable.

Machiel has a very different kind of experience and I will let him add to that.

Machiel Van Der Harst, Founder and CEO, TECH5: I was also very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time and to gain experience in implementing some of the first biometric programs. For instance, with the United Nations, the very first biometric implementation that I was responsible for was refugee registration in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Until then, I had been mainly working on the technology side, meaning working for another technology supplier and marketing their specific biometric technology. But then I moved over to the other side of the fence and became involved in designing and implementing a biometric program which had a very specific aim to prevent beneficiaries from double-dipping and receiving aid on multiple occasions. The scope was to design a biometric system which would anonymously enroll beneficiaries such that whenever they would return to a location or go to a new location, using just their biometric information, it would become clear that they had already benefited from that particular program.

By doing so, I learned biometrics from a whole different perspective which is the user perspective and what it takes to work with various stakeholders in the field like the UN, local government, local staff, and how to think it through and set up a program like that. Most importantly, I worked with the actual beneficiaries to understand the human interaction with a particular biometric technology. I examined what could go wrong, what could go right, and the perception and potential resistance of working with biometrics.  Answering these questions was an invaluable experience.

I think what is crucial in our company is that we combine both technology and implementation expertise. With implementation expertise, we mean not only being able to configure a particular biometric SDK on the server, but also being able to think through how your solution impacts the actual deployment in the field, how the ultimate beneficiaries interact with your solution, what the potential pitfalls are, and how a user interface needs to be designed in order to avoid an operator making mistakes. There are numerous aspects that go into it which I would call ‘hidden expertise’ and I believe this is one of the key strengths of our company.

Peter O’Neill, President, FindBiometrics: I’d like to delve a little deeper into that actually, you know with the wealth of experience that you have, and Rahul I do remember when AADHAR was first announced and I remember when they got their first hundred million enrolled and everybody was just abuzz in our industry. That was so incredible. And now it’s at 1.3 billion and as you mentioned 30 million seems like a small deployment. My, how it has come so far so fast.

Obviously, governments face a lot of challenges and difficulties when building National ID ecosystems. Can you describe some of the challenges you have run across during your years of experience and how do you resolve those?

Rahul Parthe, Founder and Chairman, TECH5: Yes, absolutely. We have been working with a range of governments and institutions and building National ID ecosystems really depends on putting appropriate policies and regulations in place. Without that you do not have the basics to ask for National ID. It is then very important for the government to find and communicate economic and social incentives – to motivate people to come out and enroll in such programs, because as we know most of these programs are voluntary and you cannot force people to come out and enroll. If the government does not communicate the right reasons, then people will simply not have trust in the program and your execution is at risk. What countries have to do right now is to learn from good reference cases, like Estonia’s advanced eID infrastructure or the Indian AADHAR. Indeed, for countries building a system from scratch where there is a lack of technical and regulatory experience or biometrics expertise, these programs can be used as a baseline from which they can build upon. It allows governments and institutions to learn from best practice and avoid issues like vendor lock-in or failed execution. Properly defining a project’s scope and requirements is another core area in which we share our expertise, we want to help governments in particular with developing scalable, open systems. Personal data, often stored in central databases, is after all a national asset or what we would describe as a mission critical system; it is imperative to protect it from security breaches or unauthorized use.

Machiel Van Der Harst, Founder and CEO, TECH5: What Rahul related to are some of the general principles of scoping and designing a National ID system. You can see from how we operate in the field that our approach and our DNA is very much in line with these kinds of objectives. And again, this has been part of our particular experience over the years; we  believe in right-sizing a project to make sure we are building the right interface. This way – in partnership with the customer – we are satisfying the project’s key objectives.

Let me hand back over to Rahul.

Rahul Parthe, Founder and Chairman, TECH5: As explained earlier, we believe that nobody should be left behind, but building on and related to this, we also believe that no customer or country should be in a situation of vendor lock-in where they have to beg to retrieve their national assets or figure out how to maintain their own system.

So, based on these principles and also on our commitment to building a shared partnership, we may go as far as giving our source code for the middleware and client applications to the customer, to make sure there is no reliance on a third party and that governments and institutions can be self-reliant. As a technology provider we provide core products: ABIS, MBAP and biometric SDKs. But we also provide end-to-end solutions in which we may hand over the source code to the customer. We are also ready to place our ABIS source code in escrow on agreed terms with the customer. This is all part of our commitment to increasing customer self-reliance.

Another initiative which readers will be familiar with is MOSIP, the open-source platform for National ID systems. It is worth highlighting that TECH5 has become the first core biometric company to integrate with this platform and offer this as one of the options for a National ID system.

We are proud to build systems which avoid vendor lock-in. This allows countries to download a platform that gives them access to the source code; they can then define the direction, slowly building the capability and capacity to modify these platforms. It also steers them in a self-determined direction, especially in regards to regulatory policy. 

Peter O’Neill, President, FindBiometrics: Rahul, thank you for describing that. Why is multimodal and customer-centric so important as part of this large puzzle?

Rahul Parthe, Founder and Chairman, TECH5: That’s a great question and I think back to day one of India’s National ID program when there was a lot of discussion on which modality to use. As you can imagine, when you start addressing extremely large populations with an incredible range of human diversity – ethnically, socially and professionally – the only solution or answer to make sure that everybody in the country can participate is to use multimodal biometrics. This is the reason why we can call these programs fully inclusive because for one reason or another there is a significant percentage of the population for whom only one modality may not work. By having multimodal systems, you can cover the entire population  ensuring that everybody is included and can participate in the program.

Peter O’Neill, President, FindBiometrics: You are focused on large scale National ID systems right now, but this technology would also be wonderful for other verticals markets like healthcare for example, which is almost similar to a National ID system but you have an industry-wide ID program where it is necessary to inter communicate. Do you think about extending to other vertical markets? What are your thoughts on that?

Rahul Parthe, Founder and Chairman, TECH5: Yes, I think what it boils down to is the fundamental concept of a Foundational or digital ID; from these IDs you can devise other functional IDs which can be used in other verticals. Look at it as if you have formed a strong core at the center of an ecosystem and then everything can work in harmony with reference to this central ID. It may not be possible in all of the current deployments and we still have a long way to go where we will have a centralized, harmonized ID system in each and every country, but the systems that we have developed and the technologies that we have are easily customizable to any sort of ID system.

Now, implementing complex programs is one thing, but how do you make it convenient and secure for the end user? After all, this is what defines the success of such a program. It also means that in each vertical like banking or healthcare, you will face a different set of challenges. This is where I think our experience in large-scale deployments comes into play because every program that we work on has these challenges; we resolve them and every day is a learning experience. We strongly believe that we are now ready to address all of these other verticals and work with our partners and customers to tackle these issues and to make sure that whatever they have in mind or envisioned can be successfully implemented.

Peter O’Neill, President, FindBiometrics: In summary, what does the future hold for TECH5? Where are you taking the company over the next three years and what can we expect to see from you?

Rahul Parthe, Founder and Chairman, TECH5: Over the next three years we aim to continue investing heavily in research and development across all three modalities and matching platforms; this way we will remain at the cutting-edge of and leading the race in biometrics. Our goals are to build technologies that are not only super accurate and efficient but also secure and user-friendly. We will keep deploying our expertise in large-scale programs while developing technologies that are convenient, easy to use and adaptable to other verticals. This ensures that our technology is truly accessible to all.

Currently, we are venturing into different verticals such as the financial sector which I think is the biggest user of the authentication market, closely followed by healthcare and social welfare programs.

We are constantly evolving – identifying and working with partners who will enable us to increase our reach. The Holy Grail of biometrics or an ID system is that one day you will not need to carry any form of ID, instead you can go wherever you need to and perform a transaction in the most secure, frictionless and convenient way, without the need for a physical credential.

In the next few years TECH5 will focus on building these technologies. In parallel, we will work increasingly with the private sector; government programs will still be our main focus but I definitely see the private sector playing a major role in the company’s future.

Machiel Van Der Harst, Founder and CEO, TECH5: That is a very accurate summary of where we want to take the company, but let’s link it back to what we started to say and what we stand for and our company mission. We believe that digital ID will fundamentally transform society and it offers tremendous opportunity to impact every single individual’s life. This is very close to our heart because it represents progressive and responsible use of technology, which  is secure, private and owned by the authorized individual. And as such, we see ourselves as partners in any program that aims to address these problems in one way or another, whether through a National ID program, Foundational ID or some of the emerging verticals such as healthcare or financial services. That is where we see our role in the coming years.

Peter O’Neill, President, FindBiometrics: Thank you, Machiel and Rahul, so much. It really has been a pleasure speaking to two individuals that have the wealth of experience in our market. A real treat for our readers. So, thank you very much. The best of luck moving forward and I really look forward to hearing from you again as to your progress, because we also agree that digital identity and these national programs are critical to solve so many problems and issues in our market. Thank you again.

Rahul Parthe, Founder and Chairman, TECH5: Thank you for this opportunity, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you and we very much look forward to updating you in the future on how things are going.