Identification, Please

In the developed world, high-tech personal IDs are the stuff of Orwellian dystopia. But for everyone else, they could be a path to a happier, healthier, less precarious life.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

In the Western world, government-mandated biometric IDs — identification systems that identify individuals based on fingerprints, irises, and other unique physical traits — are often regarded with suspicion, even hostility. Last spring, one proposal in the United States to link biometric data to Social Security cards was slammed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others on grounds that it would “violate privacy by helping to consolidate data and facilitate tracking of individuals,” bringing “government into the very center of our lives.” In Britain, a program for a national biometric ID was halted, as Home Secretary Theresa May put it last spring, “to reduce the control of the state over decent, law-abiding people.”

Recording an individual’s biometric information does have a “Big Brother” feel to it. But while civil libertarians’ concerns of a “biometric surveillance state” may be somewhat understandable in the developed world, in the developing world, biometric IDs have very different implications — they could transform millions of lives for the better.

For the world’s poorest, who often have insufficient or no proof of identity, anonymity is rarely a recipe for “freedom.” Rather, it’s a cause of disenfranchisement, disempowerment, and exclusion.

According to the United Nations Development Program’s 2008 report “Making the Law Work for Everyone,” roughly four out of every 10 children in the developing world are still not registered with the state by age 5. “[I]n the least-developed countries,” the report found, “this number climbs to a shocking 71 percent.” In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the report found, more than half of births go unregistered, and in Nepal, that fraction climbs to four of every five. In Tanzania and Zambia, roughly 9 in 10 children don’t have a birth certificate, according to UNICEF’s latest numbers.

As Alan Gelb of the Center for Global Development, who has been researching biometric IDs, recently noted, some form of official identification is necessary almost everywhere in the world for everything from voting to securing credit to receiving health care. Almost all the rights, protections, and entitlements of the state, in fact, depend on being able to prove that you are who you say you are. How does one get a bank account or take a formal loan, after all, without proper identification?

In India, where less than half of the population is registered at birth, the government has begun a program to address the problem — an ambitious national biometric ID program which when completed will be 10 times larger than any existing biometric database. Its voluntary national ID card, which aims to sign up 600 million citizens by 2014, uses individuals’ fingerprints, irises, and a photograph to guarantee that a unique number is assigned to each person and that eventually, one hopes, duplicate names and names of the dead are excluded from welfare recipient rolls.

Last winter, India’s Finance Ministry announced that the unique ID number would suffice to satisfy the minimum banking requirements imposed to prevent money laundering. Indeed, iris scans, where the chance of a false match is less than 1 in 80 billion, are a less forgeable identifier of an individual than, say, an address. The iris is thus becoming an unlikely hero in documenting the undocumented. In November, for example, one small-scale program helped provide 27 homeless Indian people with bank accounts on the basis of these unique ID numbers.

For India’s poor, who often have no access to formal financial services, this means that the government, based on its own incentives, is bearing the costs of ensuring that regulatory requirements are met — costs that are normally born by banks themselves. One recent report found that India could save more than $22 billion a year by shifting government payments from cash to electronic delivery into bank accounts. Seventy-five to 80 percent of the annual savings would come from reducing corruption associated with cash payments.

Costa Rica, Ghana, Lesotho, and Mexico have each adopted or are adopting biometric IDs to reduce corruption and make government services easier to access. In Costa Rica, biometric IDs have been used, among other things, to reduce voter fraud. In Ghana, they’ve been used to increase access to financial services. In Lesotho, the Millennium Challenge Corporation is funding a national biometric ID to improve access to hospital, border post, and bank services. And in Mexico, the government is rolling out biometric IDs to reduce fraud in pension and welfare systems.

Of course, some of the concern over civil liberties is legitimate. The gathering of biometric information has to be carefully regulated, and safeguards must be put in place to protect against identity theft or other misuse. There are cost and logistical obstacles as well, though these are decreasing each year. But biometric IDs can be, at heart, a means for developing countries to immediately achieve what developed nations accomplished over long periods of time with specific addresses, birth certificates, and other means of identifying their citizens — including, perhaps surprisingly, inherited last names.

It was the state itself, after all, that in almost every case imposed permanent, inherited surnames on its citizens in order to unambiguously identify them for property deeds, taxes, conscription, and censuses. As James C. Scott points out in Seeing Like a State, a book about the lessons of centrally managed attempts at social reform, “the surname was a first and crucial step toward making individual citizens officially legible.” Biometric IDs are joining that lineage and may eventually help to deliver state benefits in the developing world far more robustly and effectively. That’s a vision of the future that civil libertarians across the globe ought to embrace as progressive, rather than dismiss as intrusive.

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