Digital Identities

Design and Uses

A project of the Centre for Internet and Society, India
Supported by Omidyar Network India
This report was supported by Privacy International

Surveillance-enabling Identity Systems in Africa:
Tracing the Fingerprints of Aadhaar

June 28, 2022

Research and Writing by Shruti Trikanad
and Vrinda Bhandari
Review and Editing by Gurshabad Grover
and Yesha Tshering Paul
Research Assistance by Drupad U.

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In the recent past, political justifications for national biometric identity systems has shifted from security and terrorism to the promotion of human development and social and economic inclusion, particularly for the marginalised. This has resulted in these identity systems being encouraged in developing countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

In this report, we identify the different external influences and actors that are playing a part in biometric ID programmes in developing countries. These range from philanthropic organisations, private companies, and technology vendors, to state and international institutions. Most notable among these is the World Bank, whose influence we investigated in the form of case studies of Nigeria and Kenya. We also explored the role played by the “success” of the Aadhaar programme in India on these new ID systems. A key characteristic of the growing “digital identity for development” trend is the consolidation of different databases that record beneficiary data for different government programmes into one unified platform, accessed by a unique biometric ID. This “Aadhaar model” has emerged as a default model to be adopted in developing countries, with little concern for the risks it introduces.