Identification as a tool of Statecraft

By Danne Institute for Research

An end to the files folder?

Since 2003, Singapore has issued a digital identity called Singpass to its citizenry. It collates their biometrics, biographical data and digital documentation into a single mobile application. That allows businesses to easily verify the identities of customers without investing in alternate databases. It also allows the government to inform and track the obligations of the citizens. Finally, citizens can access government services at the click of a button or with a single QR code scan. Rather than relying on citizens having to watch national news for important information, the government sends notifications directly to their devices in real-time.

The Indian Aadhaar, literally meaning foundation, was launched on September 10, 2010. A decade later, at least 1.2 billion people have been registered on the platform. Because many of its citizens rely on manual labour, to avoid possible errors, it relies on iris scans rather than just fingerprinting. The primary justification for the project was inclusion. By eliminating the various documents necessary for interaction with the State, it reduced the ability of outside agents, whether touts or corrupt officials, to interfere with the citizen’s right to access services from the State. Tying documentation to biometrics also makes forgery all but impossible.

Identity and the State

The above methods are part of what James C. Scott, an American anthropologist, called making a society ‘legible’. That legibility, on occasion coerced, simplified the functions of the State. In other words, they are foundational for the enforcement of taxation and the maintenance of law and order. The relationship between simplification and governance should be clear once you consider the difference between a busy intersection without a traffic controller or traffic light. What both do is simplify the thought processes of drivers. Rather than trying to divine the intentions of other drivers, their thought process is reduced, instead, to two simple commands: stop or go.

The historical relationship between ‘legibility’ and taxation goes back millennia. Some of the earliest records of taxation go all the way back to 3000 BC when agents of the Pharaoh transversed the length and breadth of the shores of the Nile to collect one-fifth of all grain harvests as tax for the ‘Great House’. Great House being the literal translation of Pharaoh. To achieve their tax assessments, the Pharaoh’s tax collectors required both a knowledge of who owned what and who those owners were. In other words, their mass of subjects needed to have individual identifications in the State records.

Another excellent pre-modern example of the boon that identification grants Statecraft is the compilation of the Domesday Book in 1086. Its slightly macabre name aside, its role was simple. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle, a collection detailing the history of the Anglo-Saxons in England, described it thus:

Then, at the midwinter [of 1085], was the king in Gloucester with his council ... . After this had the king a large meeting, and very deep consultation with his council, about this land; how it was occupied, and by what sort of men. Then sent he his men over all England into each shire; commissioning them to find out "How many hundreds of hides were in the shire, what land the king himself had, and what stock upon the land; or, what dues he ought to have by the year from the shire.

Identification and Technology: Pros and Cons

It is in the interests of the State to know the number of people it commands and their abilities and resources. Such knowledge is vital to its survival. Without, for example, an accurate appraisal of incomes and assets, raising revenue will be nigh impossible. Without adequate knowledge of births and deaths, planning will be inadequate. Legibility, in other words, is indispensable for effective specialisation.

The ability of the State to render its citizenry legible has progressed hand-in-glove with the advance of technology. The use of birth certificates, for example, allowed for more accurate age descriptions. That, in turn, underpins various social technologies like pensions and educational grades. The ability to pay pensions, in turn, also depends on records midwifed by developed technologies.

The foundational technology of the 21st-century has been software. Even more so as we enter its second decade, the present looks more like the future predicted by Marc Andressen, a Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist. That future is now the present: ‘a global economy that for the first time will be fully digitally wired...software is eating the world’.

The combination of ever-increasing computational power and lower processing and storage costs has created this present where software suffuses everything. The progress in increased legibility of the citizenry by the State has not been spared the march of software. Its greater processing power has lent itself to a larger thirst for data, and a concomitant increase in the ability to process it.

Increasingly, the technological standard is a single digital national identity card which serves as the sole means of identification for citizens. The aim is to render the days of carting around sheaves of documents obsolete. Singapore and India, countries at different ends of the prosperity scale, offer examples of that approach.

They also show some of the benefits. Singapore was able to rapidly disburse State aid to nine out of ten of its citizens to help them tide over their finances during the pandemic ‘circuit breaker’, as they prefer to call their lockdowns. In India, where businesses have often struggled with Know Your Customer requirements, the widespread uptake of Aadhaar has been impactful.

The benefits to the citizenry of greater legibility although immense, are fraught with danger. Currently, the leading capitalist societies are all places where their citizenry are highly legible. Yet the potential benefits on offer should not blind us to the fact that some States have also exploited the power of their increased knowledge to persecute. The warning of James Madison, an American Founding Father, echoes down the ages:

In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Without strong guardrails keeping the State in check, the powers it uses to benefit could also be used by it to oppress.

On the other hand, the dangers of government from digital intrusions by State and Non-State actors are equally immense. In early 2020, hackers broke into Solar Winds, an Information Technology management company. The hackers then burrowed through its networks to spy on their customers, including multiple Fortune 500 companies and agencies of the US government. The rise in digital identification systems carries with it a responsibility for their security. That implies additional competencies that governments have to master.

Although the potential for abuse exists, there are also huge benefits and some of the risks could be mitigated. All the reason then to end with a positive vision of what this digital future promises.

The path to sunlit uplands?

A social contract could begin at the prenatal stage.

The State could guarantee that children have the essential inputs for a healthy, well-nourished, and stimulative time from conception to the toddler stage. That implies widespread access to prenatal health care, immunizations, micronutrients and parenting information for parents.

Second would be to ensure access to quality early learning and further education to ensure that the child grows up to become a productive member of society.

All those require information. That information would allow better calibration of the location and quantity of facilities, to measure their quality and target aid to the indigent. Tax assessments would also be easier as the earnings of citizens could be more easily tracked.

The current technological revolution in identification would help ensure those plans. And without the waste and corruption that has often bedevilled social projects.

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