Identity issues

January 06, 2019


The writer is a development practitioner.
The writer is a development practitioner.

OVER the past weeks, bank account owners in Pakistan have received messages requiring them to visit their branch to have their biometrics scanned. This is in response to a State Bank directive to all banks for biometric verification to identify fake accounts and prevent illegal transactions. This new initiative raises some questions on the increasingly stringent identification requirements in Pakistan and their impact on civil rights and inclusive development.

Nadra is one of the most extensive identification regimes in the world, with one of the largest centralised citizen databases. It is now impossible to exercise basic rights without a CNIC issued by Nadra: a CNIC is required to get a passport and a driver’s license; to open a bank account; to vote; to get a SIM card, internet and electricity connections; and to receive state benefits, including BISP transfers.

The ability to prove your identity is important in any country for security reasons and for exercising basic rights, but the implementation of extensive national identification projects also has serious implications for human rights and access to basic services. Under the banner of promoting security, national identification can become a tool for surveillance, encroaching on the privacy of citizens. And rather than promoting access, it can exacerbate the exclusion of marginalised segments.

Nadra is one of the world’s most extensive identification regimes.

The debate around privacy and surveillance has been a recurring theme with Nadra as it continues to expand its functions and applications. Take, for example, the Safe Cities projects in Pakistan’s major cities, under which CCTV cameras with facial recognition capabilities integrated with Nadra’s database have been installed. As more and more aspects of our lives are linked to the CNIC, Nadra is evolving into an indepth data repository with a ‘360-degree’ view of Pakistan’s citizens and their lives. Civil society organisations have initiated efforts to bring attention to these issues and protect people against the misuse of this system.

A nationwide citizen registration system can also result in political, social and economic exclusion. The development sector has pushed for identification for all citizens as a prerequisite for inclusive development, since those who do not have ID are increasingly excluded from accessing basic rights and amenities such as voting, financial services and social transfers.

The UN SDGs include Goal 16.9 on identity: “By 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration”. The World Bank ID4D (Identification for Development) “helps countries realise the transformational potential of inclusive, robust, and responsible digital identification systems” with the aim to “enable all people to exercise their rights and access services”.

The problem that the development sector hopes to solve is the exclusion that results from the design of national identification systems. An example is the millions of women who are unable to vote as they do not have CNICs. Other examples are refugees and minority groups who are excluded from the identification database.

Exclusion from the ID system, whether deliberate or due to bureaucratic inefficiencies, results in exclusion from a vast array of basic services and human rights. Some of these challenges are being solved by digital identity systems, and new and innovative ways of collecting data on individuals by the public and the private sectors. Biometrics is one such solution but, as the Aadhaar experiment in India has shown, it is dangerous to consider this system foolproof — a woman tragically died when the Aadhaar biometric verification system failed and she was unable to get rations for days.

In the recent case of the drive across Pakistan for banks to have all their customers biometrically verified, the requirement adds yet another layer of complexity for accessing basic financial services — for example, for those whose fingerprints may not be recognised (due to old age or manual labour), or for those who face challenges in visiting bank branches (including women or people in rural areas). Where biometrics are lacking, facial recognition and iris scans are being introduced, but the collection of increasing amounts of physiological data on people comes with its own ethical baggage.

While new identification systems are finding innovative solutions to address the exclusion that has resulted from the status quo, we must question if they are violating privacy, if the vast amounts of data being gathered on citizens may be misused, and if the new systems can perpetuate new forms of exclusion.

Identification systems must be open to accountability and interrogation, to ensure that they are used for protecting rights and not for encroaching on our privacy. As more and more data continue to be collected on Pakistani citizens by the public and the private sector, appropriate privacy and data protection laws must be passed and new forms of data must be protected and monitored against misuse.

The writer is a development practitioner.

Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2019