Identification, Please

article | March 09, 2011

In the Western world, government-mandated biometric IDs -- identification systems that identify individuals based on fingerprints, irises, and other unique physical traits -- are often regarded with suspicion, even hostility. Last spring, one proposal in the United States to link biometric data to Social Security cards was slammed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others on grounds that it would "violate privacy by helping to consolidate data and facilitate tracking of individuals," bringing "government into the very center of our lives." In Britain, a program for a national biometric ID was halted, as Home Secretary Theresa May put it last spring, "to reduce the control of the state over decent, law-abiding people."

Recording an individual's biometric information does have a "Big Brother" feel to it. But while civil libertarians' concerns of a "biometric surveillance state" may be somewhat understandable in the developed world, in the developing world, biometric IDs have very different implications -- they could transform millions of lives for the better.

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