Get access

No Identification Without Representation: Constraints on the Use of Biometric Identification Systems



The human species is again becoming nomadic. Each year, about two billion persons move across large geographic distances (not to mention people in “virtual mobility” through information and communication technology). Many of these people have weak or unreliable identification documents—and many poorer people in developing countries do not even have these documents. In 2000, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) calculated that 50 million babies (41% of births worldwide) were not registered at birth. In this scenario, a personal identification scheme based on birth registration and state-issued passports is less and less tenable. Biometrics appears to offer a viable technological solution. However, the technology itself is subject to popular critique, warning of dystopian futures of overwhelming surveillance and loss of privacy. The best answer to those who fear an Orwellian future is to engage with the technology and seek to ensure that biometric identification systems are developed in positive ways. We suggest that identification schemes become problematic when the reciprocity of identification goes unnoticed, forgotten, or (what is worse) is intentionally bypassed. The dynamics of identification should be reciprocal, dialogical, and involving mutual recognition. In the traditional political domain, this is the recognition by the state of a citizen and by the citizen of the state. In the digital age, identification systems must increasingly transcend geopolitical borders. A globally recognized identification scheme is therefore a necessity. However, it is merely the nature of the borders that has changed here—not the nature of identification. Our call will be: no identification without representation.