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Nigeria’s Orwellian Biometric ID Is Brought to You by MasterCard

Nigeria’s Orwellian Biometric ID Is Brought to You by MasterCard

Imagine an ID card that remembers all of your personal records. This one card serves as your driver’s license and a catch-all that includes information about your health insurance, tax payments, and bank accounts. Oh, and it’s a MasterCard.

Now imagine you’re required to have it to vote. By 2019, that will be the case in Nigeria, where the government is running a large-scale pilot program with MasterCard, the U.S. credit card giant. An initial 13 million Nigerians will participate in the pilot program, but all those above the age of 16 — a whopping 160 million people — are expected to carry the cards by 2019.

At an official launch in the Nigerian capital of Abuja last week, President Goodluck Jonathan was the first to receive one of the biometric cards, which stores a scan of its owners irises and all ten fingerprints. "The card is not only a means of certifying your identity, but also a personal database repository and payment card, all in your pocket," Jonathan said.

He also pointed to the economic benefits of the no-cost card, which will provide access to electronic banking for citizens who previously might have faced challenges qualifying for loans due to lack of identification.

While Nigeria is not the first country to launch a biometric ID card tied to a banking system, this is the first time a major banking institution has so specifically endorsed the use of an ID card. Eventually, the ID system could be used to disburse social benefits, make deposits and withdrawals, and set up savings accounts through local banks partnering with MasterCard for the initiative. MasterCard calls the initiative a "financial inclusion project," and in that sense the project holds potential as a way to more efficiently disburse government benefits — without corrupt officials skimming off the top.

But the card has also raised concerns among many Nigerians who worry that the card could compromise their privacy — by making it accessible either to the government or to a hacker. With a massive trove of information stored on each citizen, the card could pose as an attractive target for cyber-criminals looking for personal information.

Gus Hosein, the executive director of U.K.-based civil liberties NGO Privacy International, said these concerns are especially frightening as so far no plan has been presented to protect citizens from having their private data shared with MasterCard.

"Building a vast and expansive identity system with weak protections means, sadly, that it’s going to be abused," Hosein said.

This is not Nigeria’s first shot at a nationwide identification program. Ten years ago, a similar project failed after millions of cards were canceled amid double registrations and a slew of errors on the cards. That has made many Nigerians wary of the new all-encompassing ID card. And in a country plagued by a history of government corruption and abuse of power, the requirement to use an ID linked to banking in order to vote is particularly sensitive.

"There is good reason why no democratic society permits the creation of such a system, at least not without incredible safeguards," Hosein said. "Something as precious as your right to participate in elections should never be placed at risk of faulty systems, deployed by people who may be well meaning, but do not understand the risks."