In 2019, the Kenyan government launched a national biometric identification program. Under this program, citizens are required to register for a unique ID number if they wish to receive benefits. Everything from housing to healthcare to voting is contingent on documentation of fingerprints and faces. While the program has been widely implemented with nearly 40 million of 49.7 million Kenyans registering, many of Kenya’s ethnic, racial and religious minorities have been excluded.
In order to receive a biometric identification number, most adults must provide a national identity card. For many ethnic minorities, including Nubians, Maasais, Boranas, Somalis, Indians and Arabs, the standard is higher and more difficult to meet. According to the New York Times, members of these groups often have to provide the land titles or papers of their grandparents, documents which are usually incredibly difficult for them to obtain. In some rural areas, the times in which citizens can apply are limited to specific days or certain seasons. As a result, five million Kenyans have been delayed or outright denied identification cards. Interestingly enough, Kenya’s ID program is not the first of its kind. In 2018, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), expanded Aadhaar, a program initially intended to reduce fraud through unique and hard to forge IDs. Through Aadhaar, citizens’ biometric information is linked to everything from tickets to bank accounts. In fact, according to the New York Times, many newborn babies cannot leave the hospital until they are signed up under Aadhaar.
Many of the governments with strict biometric ID laws argue that these policies are for the overall betterment of the country and that having a standard system will lead to more efficient distribution of resources and prevent corruption. However, this rhetoric masks the many reasons that governments seeking to limit citizenship might choose to implement biometric identification programs. For one, these laws aren’t just restricting access to one or two or even three aspects of public life. They restrict every single aspect. Want to get married? You need an ID. Want to have a phone number? You need an ID. Want to go to school? You need an ID. When the state becomes the main source by which belonging and identity are doled out and authenticated, it is extremely easy to exclude minorities and “enemies” of the state, including dissidents and activists. Identification laws can therefore be incredibly powerful tools of state control.
Governments in particular rely on biometric ID because it is incredibly useful in facilitating surveillance. In India, the Modi government has linked biometric ID to cell phones and bank accounts. States within India have used this data to map where people live. In China, where many Muslims are being detained, analysis of a recently leaked document by the New York Times demonstrated that state identification and surveillance are inextricably linked. The document contained the names and government identities of more than three hundred residents held in the camps and information on their relatives and neighbors. When each citizen has an ID number, the government can 1) keep track of citizens and 2) ensure that when it wishes to contain them, it is easily able to do so. Countries also use biometric ID to make identity something quantifiable and tangible. The body becomes the apparatus of citizenship. In doing so, the state also legitimizes policing the bodies of citizens. According to the New York Times, this has serious implications. In India, many people who have lived lives of hard manual labor have no readable prints. As a result, in one state, 20 percent of households have been unable to receive food rations. Leprosy patients have been told that they will not receive benefits unless they pass fingerprint and iris scans, despite the fact that their illness damages their fingers and eyes.
So what exactly can people do in response to these biometric identification laws? It turns out that activism is incredibly crucial. In Kenya, in response to complaints of unconstitutionality filed by civil rights groups, the New York Times reported that the high court temporarily suspended the nation’s national biometric identity program on Jan. 31. If it hadn’t been for activists paying attention to these issues and filing court cases, restrictive identity laws would have continued to sweep across Kenya.
So, to all the activists out there, if nothing else, pay attention. The collection of biometric data may seem like a frivolous and benevolent tool of the state. In reality, however, it can be a slippery slope to disenfranchisement and even detainment.