The Optimist

The Case for Big Brother

A little government monitoring can be a good thing.

Ian Waldie/Getty Images
Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Hold on, Mr. Orwell. A bit of attention from Big Brother can be a good thing.

For those of us who’ve spent hours in line at the department of motor vehicles or forked over a couple hundred bucks to get a passport (all to end up with a picture ID that makes Charlie Sheen’s mug shot look good), it may be difficult to appreciate the joys of government-issued identification. Even worse is the very real fear that nefarious government agencies will use this information to track and monitor citizens.

Yet nearly all of us still carry IDs (the Amish honorably excepted). Driver’s licenses, social security cards, passports, and birth certificates are vital in the modern world. If you want to open a bank account, buy a house, claim pension payments, vote, drive, or travel across a border, you need a recognized, legal identification. This is a good thing.

Now consider that hundreds of millions of people worldwide have absolutely no legal ID, which keeps them in the shadows of the global economy. According to UNICEF, 98 percent of people in rich countries have birth certificates, while 40 percent of children in the developing world are not registered at birth — and the proportion grows even higher in poorer parts of the world. In South Asia, for instance, nearly two out of three births went unregistered at the turn of the century. Try claiming legal title to the land your family has farmed for generations if, officially, you don’t even exist. And forget about opening a bank account. Under anti-money-laundering "know your customer" laws, people without IDs are stuck stuffing money in the mattress.

Then there are fake IDs. No, not your teenage daughter’s. I’m talking about the millions of people around the world who knowingly have multiple "legal" identifications, which they use to cheat lax governments out of billions of dollars each year in pensions, payments, and services. That costs you money — another reason to embrace Big Brother. For all the justifiable concerns, the bottom line is that the rapid global spread today of more robust ID systems — powered by new technologies that use high-tech personal features from fingerprints to brain waves — is great news.

Much of this new spate of innovation is taking place in the developing world, where the most people stand to benefit. From Brazil to South Africa, governments have access to a growing number of biometric identity techniques: fingerprints, facial recognition, iris and retinal scans, voice and vein patterns, tongue mapping, lip movements, ear patterns, gait, DNA, brain waves, and, yes, even, um, posterior prints. A new study by Alan Gelb and Julia Clark of the Center for Global Development (CGD) reports that more than 1 billion people in developing countries have already had their biometrics taken over the past few years. (Biometrics is a global growth business; the worldwide market for such services is estimated to hit $16.5 billion by 2017.)

The most ambitious scheme is in India, which is in the midst of biometrically identifying its 1.2 billion residents. It has already registered 200 million citizens, using 10 fingerprints and two iris scans each. The system, developed under the leadership of Nandan Nilekani, the former CEO of Infosys, isn’t foolproof, but it’s close. As of December 2011, there was a 0.057 percent chance that a new registrant would be confused with someone else among the 84 million people registered at that point, and only a 0.035 percent chance that the system didn’t catch someone attempting to register twice, according to a CGD study.

Biometric techniques have the advantage of producing identifying markers that are more difficult to forge and more secure from errors than traditional approaches. They are also comparatively cheap (around $5 per person) and don’t rely on language or literacy skills. That has made them not only fair but an incredibly cost-effective tool to ensure payments and services are given to the right people — and only the right people.

Ghana, for example, now mandates that payments for government employees are made into "e-zwich" bank accounts, verified by fingerprints. More than 300,000 people were enrolled into the system in its first year. Given the scale of the ghost-worker problem in Ghana — in 2011 more than 29,000 names on the country’s payroll were reported to be unaccounted for, meaning salaries were being paid to staff members who didn’t exist — Gelb and Clark estimate that the e-zwich system paid for itself in a matter of months.

Biometrics are also being used to confirm eligibility for health coverage, update patient logs, and confirm adherence to treatment regimes. Health workers are using fingerprints to ensure that people finish tuberculosis treatments in New Delhi, and in South Africa to check that patients are taking their antiretroviral AIDS treatments.

Biometric systems are also helping young democracies grow. Around 400 million people in the developing world have had biometric data taken as part of voter registration and voting procedures over the past few years. That reduces the risk of fraud and ballot-stuffing, strengthening faith in the democratic system. Of course, the process doesn’t always run smoothly. The United Nations supported an effort in Afghanistan to use iris scans as part of voter registration in the 2009 election, but the system was overwhelmed, even when officials tried collecting ink fingerprints instead.

There are still dangers in this move toward better identification. Civil libertarians complain that it increases opportunities for governments to abuse citizens, regardless of what limits are meant to be in place. For example, they argue, what’s to stop police from searching health records for evidence of drug use? Or targeting illegal immigrants?

Remember that India’s National Population Register was originally set up as part of a government campaign to deport undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants. In fact, better government IDs just might translate into higher prices for lots of things, at least if they end up cutting into the world’s massive informal economy (now estimated to be worth $10 trillion). If the United States tightened up on fake IDs, it would reduce the supply of undocumented workers for farms, household work, and construction — and that means you’ll pay more for your arugula and weekly lawn-mowing crew.

Undoubtedly, these are valid concerns, and new IDs must be accompanied by real checks and balances to prevent government abuse. For most of the developing world, however, the benefits — access to jobs, protection, and government services — outweigh the risks. They’ll save governments money too, and that means lower taxes (eventually). Just as importantly, these new systems promote transparency and better governance, increasing trust that government funds are going to people who deserve them, rather than ghosts and fraudsters. Yes, ID systems can help governments monitor citizens, but they can also make governments much more responsive to citizens’ needs.

Even Big Brother’s daddy, George Orwell himself, had an ID card. Everyone should be so lucky.

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