All over the world national governments are turning to biometrics for civil ID. Successful large scale implementations of biometrics-based national ID are emboldening countries – from the Philippines to France – to register their citizens for reasons as far ranging as naked payments and financial inclusion, to digital democracy and national security. This week, for FindBiometrics’ Government Applications Month, we are going to look at three examples of large scale biometric ID programs, and the lessons that can be learned from them.
Every conversation of national ID has to start with talk about India’s Aadhaar. Easily the most ambitious biometric ID initiative on the planet, Aadhaar is an increasingly important aspect of everyday life for Indian citizens. Essentially an ID number linked to biographical details and biometric data—namely fingerprint, iris, and face – Aadhaar boast over one billion citizen enrollments. It’s given to children in their infancy and used to validate death certificates.
The benefits of Aadhaar are wide-ranging and tangible. With a massive government database of biometrics linked to a citizen’s ID, government subsidies can be doled out with greater accountability, politicians and workers in the public trust can be held in greater transparency, and everyday things like payments can be made more secure and convenient. The last example is perhaps the greatest signal of Aadhaar’s maturity. Aadhaar Pay, which allows enrolled citizens to make financial transactions with nothing but their bodies, competes with the most prominent commercial mobile wallets out there and doesn’t discriminate based on the smartphone one can afford.
Of course, any technology with such powerful social impact will attract controversy. Aadhaar is changing lives in India, and it recently became subject to a right-to-privacy ruling in the country’s supreme court. As other nations seek to emulate Aadhaar (and they already are), India will surely be looked to as an important historical precedent when it comes to matters of logistics, infrastructure, and legislation.
Nigeria serves as an important example when we talk about the actual implementation of large scale national ID. The country is notable for its enthusiastic embrace of civil ID biometrics. Multiple arms of the Nigerian government have turned to biometric ID for everything from education, to census taking, to financial inclusion. But specific obstacles emerged from the method of implementing such systems.
Criticism has grown over the years as biometrics have been invoked numerous times to solve individual problems, and the objections are all the same: the various branches of the Nigerian government enrolling the citizenry are starting from scratch. Initially this practice sparked worries of citizen enrollment fatigue and criticisms of inefficiency. Now that the Nigerian government has successfully enrolled much of its population many times to different ends, the major talking point is about redundancy, with recent calls for the merging of biometric databases from members of OPEC and even the UN.
Nigeria’s national ID efforts exemplify opportunities and challenges when it comes to large scale government biometrics initiatives. The benefits of such a registry are myriad, and the scenario proves that even with limited infrastructure multiple enrollments of a citizenry are possible. But it is also clear that when it comes to national ID programs, inter-agency cooperation and database centralization is key.
The Nation of the Stateless
Under the current global political climate, one of the most important biometric governments is international. The UNHCR is working with refugee hosting nations across the globe to provide people without homes the right to identity.
Identity fraud is a concern in refugee camps, as is the general condition of being undocumented. ID papers can be lost or left behind in the act of fleeing a nation or moving between camps, and in some cases refugees did not have official identification in the first place.
“Statelessness can lead to instability and become a root cause of displacement,” explained UNHCR Regional Representative for West Africa and Regional Refugee Coordinator for Nigeria Situation, Liz Kpam Ahua, speaking at the Regional Ministerial-level Meeting on Statelessness in West Africa earlier this year. “Displacement – whether caused by conflict or natural disasters—can also increase the risk of statelessness, which in turn becomes an obstacle to achieving durable solutions for displaced persons, preventing them from rebuilding their lives in dignity and impeding return and relocation.”
For years now, the UNHCR has employed biometrics give irrefutable identity to refugees in Thailand, Chad, Bangladesh and more, while advocating for the use of biometrics in other countries as well. Biometrics fight displacement by ensuring no matter where a refugee ends up in their post-state journey, they have a true identity that cannot be taken from them. The UNHCR’s championing of biometrics as a solution to displacement helps underline the fundamental importance of identity.
Stay posted to FindBiometrics throughout September as we continue to bring you featured content on the topic of Government Applications in Biometrics.
September 14, 2107 – by Peter B. Counter