Civil Registration Centre for Development, The Hague and the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, Johannesburg

On the Future of Legal Identity

April 28, 2015

Between April 21 and 23, thirty-two researchers and practitioners met in the Hague to examine the contemporary possibilities and limits of the new technologies of identity registration in the world's poorest countries.

Some key points stand out from these discussions:

Tightly inter-related clusters of supply and demand are encouraging the global proliferation of identification systems. The factors of supply include rapidly cheapening devices (chips and sensors), more robust and more reliably interoperable software based on open standards, stronger and wider communications networks, the growing power of specialist (state-supported) biometric registration corporations, and, occasionally, some very effective project designs (in particular, Nilekani's Aadhaar project). The demand factors include heightened international security concerns after 2001, very wide interest in the regulation of subsidies, the introduction of cash transfers, more effective policing of migration, a general interest in surveillance at many levels of government and planning, and the interests of donor countries in simple and limited interventions. The interaction of these forces have prompted the majority of the world's poorest countries to issue identity cards over the last decade. (Gelb, Dharwadker, Sundaram, Manby, van der Straaten)

These projects are vigorously underway on the African continent, in the issuing of identity cards for adults and, especially, for voter registration and identification aimed at specific elections (Cutolo, Piccolino, Rader, Manby). It is clear from several of these studies that registrations aimed at identifying voters have been especially favoured and comparatively successful (Shani, Rader, Piccolino, Manby). However, these voter registration campaigns are also typically very expensive, and their administrative effects are usually fleeting, requiring new expensive projects of registration

The relationships between systems of adult biometric identification and the older paper based systems of birth and death registration which are sclerotically maintained by most poor states are variable, sometimes mutually reinforcing, sometimes exclusive, sometimes independent (Harbitz, Flaim, Fourchard, van der Straaten) But it is important to note that biometric identification projects are not taking place in an administrative void. Existing infrastructures of civil registration exist in most African states (van der Straaten). And it is also clear that systems of registration can be designed to reinforce each other, by the firms providing biometric registration systems, the states implementing them or by lending or donor agencies. The benefits of linking civil registration and adult identity registration (especially around the control of cash transfers) – and the mechanisms required to secure them, have been comprehensively demonstrated in Latin America and South Africa (Harbitz, van der Straaten)

A live system of civil registration has several very beneficial effects on public health surveillance, rights and entitlements (Abou-Zahr, Gelb, van der Straaten). Many of these benefits are perceived to be at risk in the context of increased immigration, an environment which is encouraging some of the wealthiest states to consider the same infrastructures of universal biometric registration that are being implemented by poor countries (Brunberg & Henriksen).

The question of whether the issuing of identity cards – issued for many different reasons – strengthens the infrastructure of registration, improving states' abilities to record the identities of their citizens and residents remains largely open, and much dependent on the political and administrative history of each region (van der Straaten, Gelb, Lagaay, Rader, Piccolino). So too the effects on inclusiveness and economic development of the commercial agencies that some states – notably Britain and Pakistan – turn to provide identification systems remains largely unknown (Gelb, Whitley). Several participants have stressed that this outsourcing of identification, especially in the poorest countries, is taking place without meaningful law or regulation around privacy, data integrity and intellectual property rights.

A problem of considerable difficulty and importance is the establishment – in law and in administrative practice – of what we mean by legal identity. This is an especially important problem in light of the fact that the wording of the forthcoming 2030 Sustainable Development Goals will direct direct states and donor agencies to secure universal legal identity (Govil, Barrios, Klaaren).

Finally, the current Indian Aadhaar project looms over the entire global terrain of civil and biometric registration, marking the current conjuncture in the evolution of states. Aadhaar is, at once, a model of inclusiveness and efficiency (Bhabha, Gelb) and an example of an overbearing surveillance state (Sundaram, Dharwadker). Aadhaar contrasts with many of the Latin American projects, and the South African example, in that it ignores existing systems of birth and death registration.

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