Making things worse

People from the developed world, trying to impose their values on developing countries, have no idea how much damage they sometimes do.

Let’s take the example of biometrics. In developing countries bureaucracy and corruption are the bane of ones existence.

In Kabul registering a vehicle, or simply replacing a stolen licence disk, can take months, standing in queues and paying bribes, often required because there is no formal mechanism to prove who you are.

There is no social security number. No utility invoices. No birth register. To prove who one is requires authentication from people who can prove who they are, usually government employees, who unless they are friends require payment. Even when one official accepts the authentication, another won’t, so yet another person has to attest. It can run to hundreds of dollars.

Afghanistan has been putting together its National Identity Card (NID) for a number of years, doing it properly. The Afghan government started in 2006 after they had agreed with the international donors that Afghanistan needed a reliable voters register. Biometric identification was seen as the cornerstone of ensuring the system was reliable.

Then the US military who had been providing some technical guidance to the Afghan government started trying to take ownership. In an article in the New Yorker, the vice admiral in charge of obtaining the biometric data from Afghan detainees claimed that he was helping to:

issue identity cards, with biometric data such as fingerprints, to every person in the country over the age of fifteen.

He linked the NID to an ambition to hold the Taliban accountable while protecting the innocent from false accusations using his project.

The biometric identity card project in the UK was cancelled in 2010, shortly after the Tory government came to power, wasting the £294 million that had already been spent. Worse yet, the government lost between £500 million and £1.2 billion in annual efficiency savings that the system would have generated.

The London School of Economics produced a report in 2005 warning the government that unless the increased efficiency benefits to members of the public and government were highlighted, there would be a backlash against the system. The Labour government took no notice, promoting the system’s ability to track down criminals and terrorists. Voters reacted, believing that it was in intrusion on privacy, and the Tories used that as a tool to win votes.

In a recent article in the Economist, the emphasis is on how this is an effective weapon against the insurgents. It quotes Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group based in San Francisco that keeps a watch on how digital technology encroaches on civil freedoms, who questions the quality of the data. She fears that scans done quickly in the field, or by inexperienced technicians, could lead to cases of mistaken identity.

Digital technology does not encroach. People encroach. Biometric data acquisition is fraught with problems. That’s why the Afghan government specified technologies that prevent inept and inexperienced operators from compromising data quality. An inexperienced (or careless) person just takes a little longer to do the job.

Ms Lynch’s comment also shows no understanding of the mechanics. If biometric data is bad, it very rarely matches to the wrong person, it just makes it difficult to match to the right person.

And in the meantime this interfering lawyer, who has certainly never been to Afghanistan is preventing the Afghans from improving their lives.

Perhaps after she’s spent a bit of time standing in the queues at the licensing department in Kabul she’d have a better understanding of what’s important to Afghans.

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