Mission Creep

Charles Kenny is too quick to encourage people to give up their privacy.


Charles Kenny argues in favor of government-issued biometric identification, contending that “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” (“The Case for Big Brother,” March/April 2013). Having spent more than a decade in privacy research and policy and, recently, seven months in India researching two of its biometric ID systems and interviewing Indian citizens about their new IDs, I beg to differ with Kenny’s rosy view of this and other ID systems.

Government-issued biometric ID cards are messy. They create profound civil liberties and privacy challenges that are neither easily nor well constrained by government policy — when constraints are in place at all. Take India’s “Total ID” card, part of an intricate and advanced ID system that comprises what is becoming the largest biometric data set of individuals on the planet. Although the cards were initially billed as a way to provide identification to even the country’s poorest citizens, who are most likely to be undocumented, their uses have been expanded and have become a classic example of mission creep. The cards are now used to track transactions such as the direct cash transfers that are part of India’s welfare program, as well as for employment verification and terrorism prevention. Identification cards that were initially voluntary are becoming much less so in reality. Teachers who do not have the cards have been denied pay in some places, and residents in some states told me that they have had trouble purchasing train tickets without ID cards. Unless something changes, the pressure for all residents to have a “voluntary” card will make them mandatory in practice.

Meanwhile, India has no omnibus privacy law constraining the Total ID card or its data sets. There are no legal guarantees against abuses of the systems — for example, accessing private medical records. After a bureaucratic turf war over which government agency would control the massive data sets, a truce was reached last year, with duplicate data sets sent to two competing government entities, multiplying the potential for misuse. The right to collect biometric data is now being challenged in India’s Supreme Court.

Biometric ID cards that carry information about citizens’ health benefits, services, and movements may seem like a feat of technology from afar. Up close, however, it’s clear such systems require substantial checks and balances, without which they can pose meaningful threats to hard-won freedoms.

Executive Director, World Privacy Forum
San Diego, Calif.

Charles Kenny replies:

Pam Dixon raises very important concerns about the potential — and actual — abuses of universal ID systems. I completely agree with her that such systems should be bound by strong privacy protections and transparent oversight of their use, and I’m grateful for her work in this area.

At the same time, Dixon was able to travel to India because she had a passport. And she was able to pay for the trip because she had a bank account. Both capabilities are linked to her presence in ID systems. The promise of biometric-technology advances is that they might allow more of the world to share in the benefits of identification systems that Westerners too easily take for granted.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon. @APQW
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