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Alan Gelb

Being able to prove who you are is a powerful tool that can serve as a basis for exercising rights like voting, accessing financial services and receiving transfers, and reducing fraud. Yet billions of people in the developing world lack a means to officially identify themselves. In this week’s Wonkcast, Alan Gelb and Julia Clark draw from their ongoing research on biometric technology and development to explain how developing country governments and donors can tap advances in biometrics to help empower poor people.

“People have identified each other based on physical characteristics forever,” says Julia, a CGD policy analyst. “What’s different now is advanced digital human recognition – things like digital fingerprint scans, iris scans, and face prints – a whole new world that has opened up new possibilities.”

Alan, a CGD senior fellow, says that India is forefront of this wave, using biometric identification to provide the more than one billion people with a unique, official identity as part of the Universal Identification or UID program. Drawing on a recent CGD working paper by Frances Zelazny, Alan and Julia have written a policy brief  that identifies the key lessons from India for other developing countries—and for the many donors who are increasingly involved in supporting ID programs.

“They've created a very impressive technological structure; the world could learn a lot of lessons from what India is doing,” he says. Among these: rather than specify a particular technology, India’s UID authorities have set broad standards so that multiple technologies and future technological improvements can all be incorporated into the program.

Alan tells me India has already started to use the UID program for facilitating payments to its citizens. Pakistan has also been using this kind of technology for a range of applications – including civil service reform, managing public payrolls, and eliminating duplicate or deceased citizens from their systems, he explains.

Julia, who recently joined Alan to participate in a conference in Bangalore on technology innovations for social program delivery, and wrote about the highlights in this joint blog post, tells me how widely biometric technology is being used across the developing world, and just how excited people are about it.

However, although biometrics can improve social programming, “it’s not really the technology, but the processes that impact whether or not programs are successful,” Julia explains.

I ask Alan and Julia about their forthcoming paper, Identification for Development: the Biometrics Revolution, the first comprehensive piece of research on biometrics as it applies to development. They find that almost a billion people in the developing world now have a biometric ID, and the number could double in the next few years, with India’s rapid advance in the UID program.

Among the other findings: while some countries are attempting to build biometric ID programs from scratch others could benefit from broadening already existing ID systems. And there is strong demand for ID: “identification introduced for one purpose tends to get picked up for other purposes,” Alan says.  “In the Democratic Republic of the Congo for example, the old voter ID created in 2006 is the only ID many citizens have. Now why could that not be turned into a proper national ID?”

Even as new advances in technology are lowering costs and improving systems, concerns about data security and privacy are very much a part of the debate, as Alan notes in a new blog post about the 2012 Biometrics Consortium Conference he recently attended in Tampa, Florida (check the creepy advert at the end of the post!).

My thanks to Alexandra Gordon for her production assistance on the Wonkcast recording and for drafting this blog post.