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How ID Cards Are Changing the World: The Silent Revolution

How ID Cards Are Changing the World: The Silent Revolution

. 10 min read

José Ragas, Cornell University. Originally published in Spring 2017.

While most of us were getting ready to welcome the New Year, December 31, 2015, marked a particularly special date for a group of people in India. That day, one billion citizens were scheduled to be enrolled in the Aadhaar project, the impressive identification program carried out by the Indian government through the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). While, according to some reports, the goal was not reached, the Aadhaar project stands out as the most ambitious attempt worldwide to provide personal identification to 1.2 billion people (or one-seventh of the human race).

The unprecedented pace with which governments are implementing identification programs is revolutionizing the way we understand identity and citizenship. Identification projects like the one in India aim to provide social and political rights to the civilian population by capturing biometric information. Furthermore, the massive circulation of identity cards in both remote settlements and urban centers is reshaping our gender, ethnic, and social categories by apprehending the complexity of human identity and its ongoing transformation. At the same time, these small artifacts not only ensure provisional legal shelter to refugees and exiles, but also provide visibility to individuals previously ignored by authorities and fellow citizens.

In the face of rising anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy throughout the world and fear of the so-called “undocumented,” it is important to highlight recent and viable solutions to the urgent need to protect vulnerable groups within national communities. To do so, this article brings together several cases spread out over time and space, providing the necessary context to explain their trajectory and impact. As I contend here, ID cards are just the most visible part of a larger identification system consisting of legislation, infrastructure, and human resources. While I stress the role of ID cards as generators of citizenship, I acknowledge their darker historical trajectory of monitoring populations and reifying social and ethnic hierarchies.

The shift from governments’ use of personal identification for surveillance to its more recent use for promotion of citizenship is remarkable because the same features of ID cards made them useful in both instances: malleability, portability, and endurance. This essay explores the renewed profile of identity cards by combining recent episodes with historical cases in order to situate current debates about and within undocumented populations, as well as to point toward problems that may arise in the future.

Restoring Identity to Invisible Populations

Among the most enduring and pervasive legacies of segregation in the modern world is the existence of large segments of population that lack personal documentation. Until recently, identity documents were the privilege of certain groups who, according to established categories, embodied what authorities envisioned as “model.” These documents erected an invisible barrier between those who possessed them and those who remained “invisible” to the government. Consequently, ID documents reified traditional patterns of segregation by reviving diminishing ideologies and prejudices, transforming them into tangible practices and policies. Perhaps the most important right conveyed by identity documents was the right to elect government officials, which, along with other benefits, bestowed upon their bearers the status of active citizenship. But beyond these more obvious characteristics, these small pieces of paper, whose design varied over time and space, acquired different and unexpected symbolic meanings that we are just beginning to unearth.

The number of registered and documented citizens worldwide has exploded in the past several decades. As Wendy Hunter and Robert Brill explain in a recent paper, until 2012, only half of the world’s population was registered. In some countries, citizenship registration has taken on the status of a social crusade. For instance, in Venezuela and Bolivia, New Left governments promoted civil registration and the distribution of documents as an opportunity to repair historical fractures and incorporate larger segments of the population into the national community. The Bolivarian Revolution of the late Hugo Chávez led a particularly aggressive campaign to register populations with biometric technology. Through “Mission Identity,” as the program was known, Venezuela’s Ministry of Popular Power distributed nearly 18 million ID cards. The program’s success caught the interest of Bolivian President Evo Morales. Bolivia’s version, “I do exist, Bolivia does exist” (“Existo Yo, Existe Bolivia”), primarily targeted indigenous groups and the urban poor. One of President Morales’ innovations to the model was to grant the transgender community the ability to select their gender.

Moving from South America to South Asia, we see that India has become the largest biometric laboratory in the history of the modern world. What is remarkable is not simply that Indian policymakers and experts have developed a program to handle their massive population and territory, but also that they have amassed the necessary equipment, personnel, and financial resources in only a few years. Like other national programs, India’s Aadhaar began as a response to the lack of infrastructure for redistributing financial benefits (pensions) from the government to its citizens. In the span of 10 years, the program has obtained fingerprints, facial features, and iris scans of the Indian population in order to generate a unique 12-digit identification number for each citizen.

Aadhaar will inspire, if not determine, the direction of global identification technology and policy as they overcome countless socio-technical obstacles in the coming years. Now, after having developed its national database, Aadhaar is reaching out to Silicon Valley, seeking partnerships from big tech companies like Google and Apple in their quest for the biometric utopia that will link all citizens with a permanent number. Instead of confining identity to a single piece of plastic, like personal documents, one’s identity would be given a digital signature. Indian authorities hope to convince tech companies to incorporate the use of the Unique Identification Number (UIN) into the operating systems of smartphones in India. With a potential market of at least a billion mobile phones in the country, initial reluctance—indicated by Apple not attending the official meeting—will almost certainly be replaced by a commercial agreement in the near future.

Immigrants and Refugees

National identification campaigns seek to correct the historical blindness of governments to their most vulnerable populations. The violence unleashed by radical groups, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, has provoked massive displacements within and across borders, exposing a significant number of people to the dangers of statelessness.

In response, international and national entities have employed several strategies to provide legal protection to refugees and undocumented immigrants. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), for instance, constantly urges governments to provide them with official documents “to establish their identity,” in accordance with the 1951 UN declaration on the status of the refugees. The UNHCR recommends that these be printed documents with a “stamped photograph” to prevent misuse. UN aid for these projects depends on the distribution of personal identification cards. Prior to distributing ID cards, UNHCR registers refugees, updates the previous databases with biometric verification (such as photographs and fingerprints), and conducts interviews in order to detect potential threats seeking to pass as refugees. Registration seeks not only to obtain an accurate list of names and personal data from refugees, but also to provide assistance to needy citizens such as the elderly, the sick, and the young.

Some programs are directed at minority populations. In Bangladesh, the United Nations developed a pilot program that sought to grant documents to more than 22,000 Rohingya Muslims who had crossed the border since the early 1990s. Another example is in South Sudan, where over the past decade, 265,000 refugees have entered the country from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. Registration campaigns carried out in camps located in Western Equatoria in South Sudan have issued documents to 10,000 refugees between June 2014 and July 2015.

In Pakistan, amid a massive influx of refugees from Afghanistan (33,000 in 2015 alone), authorities encountered at least 22,000 invalid or forged ID cards. Among those accused of having a fake document was Sharbat Gula, the girl who became famous when she was featured in the cover of National Geographic in 1984. Last November, she was deported to Afghanistan, accused of unauthorized possession of documents, and welcomed by President Ashraf Ghani himself. More recently, desperation for obtaining the new Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC) created a black market, with the involvement of government officials in cases of corruption and the circulation of fake documents in an attempt to gain access to some social services.

Authorities see identity documents as the first essential step to integrating immigrants into both the national and local communities. In the United States and Spain, local councils have taken on the responsibility of issuing IDs instead of waiting for federal institutions. One of the first cities to introduce municipal ID cards for immigrants in the United States was New Haven, Connecticut. As Detroit Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López stated, the ultimate goal of her city’s program was to build “inclusive democracies” at a community level. Although officials say that municipal ID cards do not intend to replace documents such as driver’s licenses or passports, these temporary documents especially help recent immigrants and other vulnerable populations. With the support of local governments and a simple card or piece of paper that can validate their identity, vulnerable citizens can open bank accounts, seek jobs, obtain pharmacy discounts, and move freely in public spaces. The National Network of Arab American Communities praised Detroit’s project, expressing that it “sends a really strong statement.”

Just a few weeks ago, Madrid’s socialist mayor, Manuela Carmena, promoted the municipal “neighborhood card” or “Tarjeta de Vecindad.” The card provides access to holders “with no restrictions” and “access to health, educational, social, and leisure services as well as to promote job positions.” New York City has also implemented its own card for residents, offering similar benefits like access to cultural venues, such as public libraries and concerts. Beneficiaries like Graciela Flores have started to take advantage of the card by visiting the Bronx Zoo: “It’s accepted everywhere,” she says. The Tarjeta de Vecindad faced criticism among political opponents in the Madrid city council, which opposed the initiative for inciting a sort of “magnet effect” (“efecto llamada”) that would provoke the arrival of more newcomers attracted by the benefits provided. Similar criticism emerged in the United States, where opponents suggest that surveillance and retrieval of personal information from their recipients are the real objectives behind these programs.

Political opposition is just one of the many obstacles that proponents of identity cards have encountered. Critics fear that the successful implementation of ID cards could mean the permanent integration of refugees and immigrants instead of representing a temporary measure. So far, the transitory nature of ID cards offers a temporary method to integrate refugees into the national economy by giving them not only the opportunity to access social services, but also the ability to open bank accounts—a privilege once limited to nationals or registered citizens. Xenophobic thinking creates problems for the organizations that issue the documents, while at the same time eroding trust in the documents among their recipients.

The Future

The massive dissemination of identity cards has no precedents in modern history. In just a few years, tens of millions of individuals have registered their names and personal data with state officials for the very first time. Some of them have obtained tangible recognition after governments and fellow nationals had ignored them for generations. As Zohora Begum, a refugee in Bangladesh, expressed after receiving her document, “[I will] keep it with me always, in a safe place, so that no one can take it away from me.” Testimonies like hers can be found in refugee camps and urban shelters worldwide.

From a technological viewpoint, ID cards will continue to offer new possibilities and generate new questions regarding their design, malleability, and social and cultural acceptance among potential beneficiaries. Two centuries after the internal passport—perhaps the most direct predecessor of our modern documents—spread during the Age of Revolutions in the Americas and Europe, it seems time for the next step in the evolution of identity cards. Perhaps they will disappear and resurface as an app on our smartphones. Or maybe they will merge with our credit and debit cards, linking personal data with bank accounts, passports, or IP addresses. Whatever route they take, it seems clear that they will be used to centralize information toward the creation of one single number that could be used in different venues in our daily lives. In doing so, ID cards will probably lose their current material aspect and acquire a digital form.

In the meantime, some evidence suggests that registration programs are transforming conventional social patterns, such as family relations and age barriers. Children have been incorporated as a key group to identify through documents. In Texas, the National Child ID Program has started to distribute special cards to protect children from trafficking and abuse. In other countries, children are receiving an alternate identity document for the same reasons. Identification technology is creating individuals and replacing ancient identification patterns like the “family book” in Myanmar, which was rooted on a patriarchal system that restricted civil registration to the head of the household, excluding the rest of its members.

Shifting geopolitics will create complex challenges for new identification systems. With the “pink tide” receding in South America and the slow replacement of left-wing governments with neoliberal regimes, it is almost certain that the registration programs in Venezuela and Bolivia will be reformed or cancelled. Even if these programs are terminated, there are already new groups of people empowered by personal documents and prepared to defend their recently acquired social and political rights. On a global scale, as anxiety looms around “illegal” immigration, undocumented populations, and refugees, identity cards will prove their value as the most effective way to bring relief to those living at the margins of society. The possession of ID cards is no longer a privilege of the few. Technology has made these artifacts affordable, and governments and private organizations have bestowed them with social and political benefits.

However, as efficient as identity documents may appear, they are only the most visible aspect of a socio-technical system. As this essay contends, identity cards provide a temporary solution to many social problems by offering an official identity and legal protection to those in jeopardy, whether they are nationals or foreign citizens. But these efforts could become useless if they are not accompanied by long-term local and national programs that promote tolerance toward vulnerable groups and alternatives to their liminal status.

We are just starting to comprehend the radical transformations that these small pieces of plastic have provided people around the globe in the last decades. We are learning about the future of biometric technology and how it can continue benefiting vulnerable groups. ID cards are at the center of a global debate about immigration, belonging, and citizenship, and their material and symbolic features are constantly reconfigured and renegotiated to counteract violence, inequality, and segregation. The most urgent question for scholars and policymakers is whether the former surveillance side of ID cards will prevail over their current role as generators of citizenship, or whether these artifacts and the systems that support them will succumb to the pressures of the new populisms and be used to target minorities.