The Right to a Personal Identity - Alan Gelb

February 25, 2014

What role can biometrics play in aiding development? My guest this week, senior fellow Alan Gelb, explains why new biometric identification technologies may be the key to radically expanding the social, political, and commercial opportunities for people in the developing world. Biometrics, he says, make it possible to fulfil for people everywhere the right to a unique, personal identity.

Alan explains that there are three principal ways in which people can identify themselves. The first can be something that you have, like a driver’s license or credit card. The second is something you know, like a PIN or a password; and the third is something that you are, like a finger print or iris scan. Biometric technology relies on this third method in order to uniquely authenticate individuals—and the costs are plummeting.   

Although biometrics are often associated with law enforcement and security, especially in the post-9/11 world, two upcoming conferences, the Third Biometric Summit in Miami on March 3-6 and the Connect ID conference in Washington, D.C. later that month also will include discussions of a booming new market: providing individual identities to hundreds of millions of people in developing countries.

Biometrics “most rapid growth is in developing countries,” Alan tells me. “Increasingly the applications are moving from security and law enforcement to a variety of development programs.”

While having proof of identity is something many westerners may take for granted, Alan explains that the lack of identification is a major impediment for poor people in the developing world.

“There are probably about 750 million children, people under the age of 16, who do not have birth certificates, who have never been officially registered,” he says. “Some of these will catch up later through national ID programs but others will not.”

Not having identification prevents people from getting licenses of various types, opening bank accounts, registering property, and even from receiving services from the government. At a time when many people are concerned about governments hacking personal data, reading emails, and listening to phone calls, such unwilled obscurity might appeal to some people as an argument against the use of biometric identification.

While Alan acknowledges that such privacy concerns are legitimate, he argues they are not sufficient reason to discourage the use of biometrics to the benefit the poorest.

“It's very hard to argue that people at the bottom of the pyramid, and they almost always are at the bottom of the pyramid, should not have an ID on the grounds that ID may be abused,” he says. “Despite all the screams about ID, the ones who don't have it, who should be the most privileged by this argument, since they have the greatest privacy, are also the poorest. They have privacy only in the sense that nobody cares about them. They don't participate.”

Given the opportunity to receive identification, people line up. Alan argues that “there's a very strong lesson coming out of the comparative experience, which is that people will come forward, people are not afraid of technology, provided they think that it has something to offer them.”

Tune into the Wonkcast to hear more, including a discussion of the technical challenges in providing biometric identification at birth. And read Alan’s blog post in which he discusses some of the new trends likely to be hot topics at the upcoming biometric conferences in Miami and Washington.

My thanks to Kristina Wilson for recording and editing the Wonkcast and for a draft of this blog post. 


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.