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In recent decades, social assistance programs around the world have been strengthened to the point that they now benefit more than 2.5 billion people, usually the poorest and most vulnerable. But rising pressure to apply biometric technology to verify beneficiaries’ identities, and to integrate information systems ranging from civil registries to law-enforcement databases, means that social programs could create new risks for those who depend on them.
Private companies, donor agencies, and the World Bank argue that the application of biometric tools like iris and fingerprint scanning or facial and voice recognition, together with the integration of databases, will boost efficiency, combat fraud, and cut costs. And many governments seem convinced.
While there is no systematic information available on the use of biometric technology in social-assistance schemes, a look at certain flagship programs suggests that it is already on the rise. In South Africa, 17.2 million beneficiaries of social grants receive biometric smart cards. In Mexico, the 55.6 million beneficiaries of Seguro Popular (public health insurance for the poorest citizens) must provide their biometric data to the authorities.
The world’s largest biometric database – Aadhaar – is in India. Because inclusion in Aadhaar is a prerequisite for access to several social programs, 95 percent of the country’s 1.25 billion inhabitants are already recorded. The provision of biometric data is also required to receive benefits in Botswana, Gabon, Kenya, Namibia, Pakistan, Paraguay, and Peru.
Biometric data stored in one social-protection program database can easily be linked to other systems using a common identifier, even those unrelated to social protection, such as for law enforcement or commercial marketing. In most European countries, however, such database integration is prohibited, owing to the threat it poses to privacy and data protection. After all, social-assistance programs require the processing of significant amounts of data, including sensitive information like household assets, health status, and disabilities.
In many of the developing countries that are expanding their social-protection and biometric-identification programs, the frameworks for protecting personal data are underdeveloped. Yet donors and government authorities often advocate the widest possible integration of databases, among public and private entities alike. For example, Nigeria, which aims to issue 100 million biometric e-ID cards, has a National Identity Database connected to various other databases, including those maintained by law enforcement agencies.