The case for needing Big Brother

Charles Kenny /

Published Mar 13, 2013 at 05:00AM

WASHINGTON — Hold on, Mr. Orwell. A bit of attention from Big Brother can be a good thing.

For those of us who’ve spent hours in line at the department of motor vehicles or forked over a couple hundred bucks to get a passport, it may be difficult to appreciate the joys of government-issued identification. Even worse is the very real fear that nefarious government agencies will use this information to track and monitor citizens.

Yet nearly all of us still carry IDs. Driver’s licenses, social security cards, passports and birth certificates are vital in the modern world. If you want to open a bank account, buy a house, claim pension payments, vote, drive, or travel across a border, you need a recognized, legal identification. This is a good thing.

Now consider that hundreds of millions of people worldwide have absolutely no legal ID, which keeps them in the shadows of the global economy. According to UNICEF, 98 percent of people in rich countries have birth certificates, while 40 percent of children in the developing world are not registered at birth — and the proportion grows even higher in poorer parts of the world. In South Asia, for instance, nearly two out of three births went unregistered at the turn of the century. Try claiming legal title to the land your family has farmed for generations if, officially, you don’t even exist. And forget about opening a bank account. Under anti-money-laundering “know your customer” laws, people without IDs are stuck stuffing money in the mattress.

Then there are fake IDs. No, not your teenage daughter’s. I’m talking about the millions of people around the world who knowingly have multiple “legal” identifications, which they use to cheat lax governments out of billions of dollars each year in pensions, payments, and services. That costs you money — another reason to embrace Big Brother. For all the justifiable concerns, the bottom line is that the rapid global spread today of more robust ID systems — powered by new technologies that use high-tech personal features from fingerprints to brain waves — is great news.

Much of this new spate of innovation is taking place in the developing world, where the most people stand to benefit. From Brazil to South Africa, governments have access to a growing number of biometric identity techniques: fingerprints, facial recognition, iris and retinal scans, voice and vein patterns, and others. A new study by Alan Gelb and Julia Clark of the Center for Global Development (CGD) reports that more than 1 billion people in developing countries have already had their biometrics taken over the past few years.

The most ambitious scheme is in India, which is in the midst of biometrically identifying its 1.2 billion residents. It has already registered 200 million citizens, using 10 fingerprints and two iris scans each. Biometric techniques have the advantage of producing identifying markers that are more difficult to forge and more secure from errors than traditional approaches. They are also comparatively cheap (around $5 per person) and don’t rely on language or literacy skills. That has made them not only fair but an incredibly cost-effective tool to ensure payments and services are given to the right people — and only the right people.

Ghana, for example, now mandates that payments for government employees are made into “e-zwich” bank accounts, verified by fingerprints. More than 300,000 people were enrolled into the system in its first year. Given the scale of the ghost-worker problem in Ghana — in 2011 more than 29,000 names on the country’s payroll were reported to be unaccounted for, meaning salaries were being paid to staff members who didn’t exist — Gelb and Clark estimate that the e-zwich system paid for itself in a matter of months.

Biometrics are also being used to confirm eligibility for health coverage, update patient logs, and confirm adherence to treatment regimes. Health workers are using fingerprints to ensure that people finish tuberculosis treatments in New Delhi, and in South Africa to check that patients are taking their antiretroviral AIDS treatments.

These are valid concerns, and new IDs must be accompanied by real checks and balances to prevent government abuse. For most of the developing world, however, the benefits — access to jobs, protection, and government services — outweigh the risks.