New biometric systems scan your face or fingerprint as proof of ID, but many governments require an official card. For some people that’s a problem.

A sign for a facial recognition system at JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo.

Facial Recognition System starts its operation at JR Shinjuku Station in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo on 30 August 2021. (The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Images)

An estimated 850 million people, mostly in low- and middle-income countries, have no credible way of proving who they are because they do not possess an officially-recognised identity document.

Without official ID, they are at risk of not qualifying for social assistance payments, healthcare and other welfare services. Chances are they cannot open a bank account, obtain a mobile SIM card or even secure employment in the formal sector.

The World Bank, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other aid donors think they have found a solution in the form of digital ID systems that use biometrics such as fingerprints, facial features and retina scans to identify an individual.

“Let’s take a simple example,” says Anil K. Jain, professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Michigan State University. “If you have a mobile phone, which has a fingerprint reader or face recognition system, you can simply place your finger on the scanner or present your face in front of the camera to unlock your phone. Basically, you are being recognised based on your body attributes.”

Jain said that face, fingerprint and iris are the three most common attributes used in government and commercial systems. “It is the only way to ensure that one person has one ID, and nobody is excluded,” Jain said.

Digital IDs and privacy violations

Not everyone agrees that biometrics hold the key to more robust identification. Indeed, some contend that digital IDs create as many problems as they solve.

“The international community always talks about inclusion without recognizing all these people who become excluded or have their exclusion deepened,” says Tom Fisher, senior research officer at Privacy International, a charity based in London.

Katelyn Cioffi, research scholar at the Centre for Human Rights and Justice at New York University’s School of Law, agrees: “There is now a really robust body of evidence of the potential harms associated with digital IDs,” Cioffi said. “We think it’s past time that the World Bank acknowledges this evidence to learn from it and make some adjustments to its approach.”

In Uganda, civil society organizations have taken the government to court over its mandatory digital ID system, known as Ndaga Muntu. They allege that the system discriminates against the elderly and impoverished women, denying them social security payments and public healthcare services.

“We want an order to compel the government to use alternative sources of identification, such as voter card, driver’s licence and passport,” says Elizabeth Atori, legal officer at the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, one of the parties to the litigation.

Biometrics as discrimination

Atori says that while the case focuses on the rights of the elderly and women, many other adult Ugandans, a third of whom don’t have a national ID, are in danger of losing access to welfare and other services.

“It has been a real challenge to access enrollment centres to register for the national ID and people who manage to walk into the centres have been unable to get officers who can enroll them,” Atori said. “Many of those who have enrolled have disputed the accuracy of information on their card. Others are unable to biometrically identify themselves because they have spent a lot of time in hard labour, so their fingerprints are not readable.”

The problem is not confined to Uganda. In Serbia, the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, an international coalition of human rights organizations, has asked the constitutional court to review a “social cards” law that came into force last year.

The coalition argues that the law unduly restricts the rights of the disadvantaged Romani community, also known as the Roma, the third-largest ethnic group in Serbia.

“Since the implementation of this law, the number of people accessing social services has decreased by 10%, the majority of them Romas,” says Senada Sali, legal director at the Belgium-based European Roma Rights Centre, a member of the coalition. “The law seeks to collect a lot of personal data which has not been done before.”

Sali said that authorities can now gather information on how the Romani community lives or their informal ways of work. “This is dangerous for one of the most marginalized communities in Europe,” Sali said.

A new technology divide

Disadvantaged communities in several other countries have raised similar concerns, including Nubians in Kenya, Haitians in the Dominican Republic and groups representing the poor and marginalized in India. “The problem is that digital IDs are being used for more and more services and people end up being excluded in different ways,” says Fisher. “It often links to people who are marginalized in society.”

However, says Jain, when you don’t have this technology, people lack identification and there can be a lot of fraud associated with paper-based systems.

Even as the debate goes on, investment in digital ID systems continues to advance. The World Bank’s Identification for Development Initiative is at the forefront, providing grants and credits, research, technical support and networking opportunities to help governments build new systems or strengthen existing ones.

The Gates Foundation committed US $200 million to digital ID systems and other digital public infrastructure last year.

The critics remain undaunted. A group of 73 civil society organisations and individuals around the world sent a letter to the World Bank and other aid donors last year calling on them to stop promoting harmful digital identification systems.

“We had the opportunity to meet bank officials privately,” says Marianne Díaz Hernández, who works on a campaign called #WhyID at Access Now, one of the signatories. “They mostly disagreed with our perspective. They promised to meet us and other civil society organizations in the first semester of this year where we will have the freedom to raise issues that we are concerned about. We are waiting.”

Three questions to consider:

  1. How do digital identification systems discriminate against marginalized communities?
  2. Should governments mandate digital IDs as a condition for accessing social and other welfare services?
  3. Can digital ID systems be improved to accommodate the critics’ concerns?
Shefali Malhotra

Shefali Malhotra is a health policy researcher based in New Delhi, and a fellow in global journalism at Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto.

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ScienceTechnologyYou know who you are. Are biometrics enough to prove it?