The Optimist

The Case for Big Brother

A little government monitoring can be a good thing.

Hold on, Mr. Orwell. A bit of attention from Big Brother can be a good thing.

For those of us who've spent hours in line at the department of motor vehicles or forked over a couple hundred bucks to get a passport (all to end up with a picture ID that makes Charlie Sheen's mug shot look good), it may be difficult to appreciate the joys of government-issued identification. Even worse is the very real fear that nefarious government agencies will use this information to track and monitor citizens.

Yet nearly all of us still carry IDs (the Amish honorably excepted). Driver's licenses, social security cards, passports, and birth certificates are vital in the modern world. If you want to open a bank account, buy a house, claim pension payments, vote, drive, or travel across a border, you need a recognized, legal identification. This is a good thing.

Now consider that hundreds of millions of people worldwide have absolutely no legal ID, which keeps them in the shadows of the global economy. According to UNICEF, 98 percent of people in rich countries have birth certificates, while 40 percent of children in the developing world are not registered at birth -- and the proportion grows even higher in poorer parts of the world. In South Asia, for instance, nearly two out of three births went unregistered at the turn of the century. Try claiming legal title to the land your family has farmed for generations if, officially, you don't even exist. And forget about opening a bank account. Under anti-money-laundering "know your customer" laws, people without IDs are stuck stuffing money in the mattress.

Then there are fake IDs. No, not your teenage daughter's. I'm talking about the millions of people around the world who knowingly have multiple "legal" identifications, which they use to cheat lax governments out of billions of dollars each year in pensions, payments, and services. That costs you money -- another reason to embrace Big Brother. For all the justifiable concerns, the bottom line is that the rapid global spread today of more robust ID systems -- powered by new technologies that use high-tech personal features from fingerprints to brain waves -- is great news.

Much of this new spate of innovation is taking place in the developing world, where the most people stand to benefit. From Brazil to South Africa, governments have access to a growing number of biometric identity techniques: fingerprints, facial recognition, iris and retinal scans, voice and vein patterns, tongue mapping, lip movements, ear patterns, gait, DNA, brain waves, and, yes, even, um, posterior prints. A new study by Alan Gelb and Julia Clark of the Center for Global Development (CGD) reports that more than 1 billion people in developing countries have already had their biometrics taken over the past few years. (Biometrics is a global growth business; the worldwide market for such services is estimated to hit $16.5 billion by 2017.)

The most ambitious scheme is in India, which is in the midst of biometrically identifying its 1.2 billion residents. It has already registered 200 million citizens, using 10 fingerprints and two iris scans each. The system, developed under the leadership of Nandan Nilekani, the former CEO of Infosys, isn't foolproof, but it's close. As of December 2011, there was a 0.057 percent chance that a new registrant would be confused with someone else among the 84 million people registered at that point, and only a 0.035 percent chance that the system didn't catch someone attempting to register twice, according to a CGD study.

Biometric techniques have the advantage of producing identifying markers that are more difficult to forge and more secure from errors than traditional approaches. They are also comparatively cheap (around $5 per person) and don't rely on language or literacy skills. That has made them not only fair but an incredibly cost-effective tool to ensure payments and services are given to the right people -- and only the right people.

Ghana, for example, now mandates that payments for government employees are made into "e-zwich" bank accounts, verified by fingerprints. More than 300,000 people were enrolled into the system in its first year. Given the scale of the ghost-worker problem in Ghana -- in 2011 more than 29,000 names on the country's payroll were reported to be unaccounted for, meaning salaries were being paid to staff members who didn't exist -- Gelb and Clark estimate that the e-zwich system paid for itself in a matter of months.

Biometrics are also being used to confirm eligibility for health coverage, update patient logs, and confirm adherence to treatment regimes. Health workers are using fingerprints to ensure that people finish tuberculosis treatments in New Delhi, and in South Africa to check that patients are taking their antiretroviral AIDS treatments.

Biometric systems are also helping young democracies grow. Around 400 million people in the developing world have had biometric data taken as part of voter registration and voting procedures over the past few years. That reduces the risk of fraud and ballot-stuffing, strengthening faith in the democratic system. Of course, the process doesn't always run smoothly. The United Nations supported an effort in Afghanistan to use iris scans as part of voter registration in the 2009 election, but the system was overwhelmed, even when officials tried collecting ink fingerprints instead.

There are still dangers in this move toward better identification. Civil libertarians complain that it increases opportunities for governments to abuse citizens, regardless of what limits are meant to be in place. For example, they argue, what's to stop police from searching health records for evidence of drug use? Or targeting illegal immigrants?

Remember that India's National Population Register was originally set up as part of a government campaign to deport undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants. In fact, better government IDs just might translate into higher prices for lots of things, at least if they end up cutting into the world's massive informal economy (now estimated to be worth $10 trillion). If the United States tightened up on fake IDs, it would reduce the supply of undocumented workers for farms, household work, and construction -- and that means you'll pay more for your arugula and weekly lawn-mowing crew.

Undoubtedly, these are valid concerns, and new IDs must be accompanied by real checks and balances to prevent government abuse. For most of the developing world, however, the benefits -- access to jobs, protection, and government services -- outweigh the risks. They'll save governments money too, and that means lower taxes (eventually). Just as importantly, these new systems promote transparency and better governance, increasing trust that government funds are going to people who deserve them, rather than ghosts and fraudsters. Yes, ID systems can help governments monitor citizens, but they can also make governments much more responsive to citizens' needs.

Even Big Brother's daddy, George Orwell himself, had an ID card. Everyone should be so lucky.

Ian Waldie/Getty Images

The Optimist

The Convergence of Civilizations

The oft-predicted "clash of civilizations" has not materialized. If anything, values are converging across cultures.

For all the talk of the global "clash of civilizations" -- the theory of inevitable conflict between cultures and religions, coined by a founder of this magazine, Samuel P. Huntington -- the interesting thing about the decade after the 9/11 attacks, when so many prognosticators and pundits championed this argument, is just how wrong they got it.

The view that Islam in particular is on a collision course with the West thanks to a yawning cultural divide got a second look when the Arab Spring didn't instantly lead to deals for Cairo Disney and Hooters Tunis. But, if anything, shared values are converging across countries and time zones and, yes, across cultures and religions. Granted, not all this convergence is universal. We're not about to see the end of history in a world where everyone's a fan of Justin Bieber (inshallah…), practices yoga, and understands the intricacies of feng shui. But there is a growing global cosmopolitanism that by and large reflects a vision of a better planet, despite the unfortunate fact that there are now a whole lot more Yankees fans.

Take global views on democracy, as reflected in the World Values surveys conducted throughout the 2000s. In Egypt, 98 percent of people thought that having a democratic political system was a good thing, an overwhelming figure echoed in other places we tend to think of as being less than democratic: 94 percent in China, 93 percent in Vietnam, 92 percent in Iran, and 88 percent in Iraq. (Oddly, in the United States, only 86 percent of the population voiced support for democratic systems.) In fact, in every country where the question was asked, considerable majorities backed democracy. Across the countries surveyed between 2004 and 2006, the average was 87 percent support for democracy as the best form of government.

Another value emerging worldwide is concern for the environment. Even in the United States, popular opinion has moved behind doing something about climate change. Americans are far from being completely sold on the issue: Sixty percent also support more offshore drilling, and (among those who have heard of it) two-thirds want to build the Keystone XL pipeline that will funnel sulfur-rich oil sands from Canada to refineries in the United States. Still, three-quarters of the public supports tax rebates for purchasing fuel-efficient vehicles or solar panels and regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and nearly 65 percent supports an international treaty requiring the United States to cut carbon dioxide emissions 90 percent by 2050, according to George Mason and Yale University polling. Ask people the world over whether they are willing to give up part of their income for the environment, and according to the World Values Survey, two-thirds say yes, including 82 percent in China and 68 percent in India.

What about attitudes toward people different from ourselves? On average, only 13 percent of respondents in countries surveyed suggested they did not want to live next to a person of a different race in the 2006 wave of the World Values Survey, down from 17 percent in 1993. Three-quarters of countries surveyed in both waves saw this measure of racism decline. Furthermore, the average percentage saying that they didn't want to live next to someone of a different religion fell from 44 percent to 33 percent -- backed up by declining rates of religious intolerance in 91 percent of surveyed countries. Over the same time, the average percentage of people saying that homosexuality is "never justifiable" fell from 59 percent to 34 percent, with declines in 93 percent of countries surveyed both years. That still adds up to a world with billions of bigots, but almost everywhere intolerance is at least in the minority now.

These attitude changes reflect dramatic changes in actual behavior. Take schooling for girls. By no means was this a global norm 50 years ago. Today, however, parents the world over are sending their daughters to school in far greater numbers. In Ethiopia in 1996, for example, only about six girls attended school for every 10 boys, according to World Bank data. By 2010, that had climbed to nearly nine girls for every 10 boys.

Or think about changing attitudes toward sex. There's no evidence that people are having less of it, but they are producing a lot fewer babies. The total fertility rate in Spain halved between 1970 and 1990, for example, and the trend is global. Parents everywhere, rich and poor, educated and not, religious and atheists alike, appear to have decided that life is better with fewer kids. Countries from Iran to Vietnam already have fertility rates low enough to suggest local populations are likely to shrink over time, and global fertility rates are converging in that direction. Simply put, women with more control over their bodies are deciding to have fewer kids.

Besides, the whole clash-of-civilizations hypothesis makes the mistake of assuming that culture and national identity trump other factors, when in fact, as Spanish sociologist Juan Díez Nicolás and others note, values within "cultural groupings," whether Islamic or Latin American, vary as much as they do across such groupings, largely because socioeconomic factors -- how rich and educated you are -- appear to determine beliefs more than historical cultural roots.

The cringe-worthy YouTube video about the Prophet Mohammed released last year (and the considerable overreaction to it across the Islamic world) might have suggested we are heading in the wrong direction. But if television is any barometer, consider that today there is an Arab Idol, an Afghan Star, and a Turkstar -- just like similar singing competitions in almost every Western country. Even our TV shows are converging.

Indeed, one of the more amusing WikiLeaks involved a 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh reporting on a conversation between diplomats and television executives in Saudi Arabia about the comparative impact of the U.S. government-funded channel, Alhurra, and local networks MBC and Rotana (partially owned by Rupert Murdoch). No one really cared for the long interviews with George W. Bush broadcast on Alhurra (a channel that costs U.S. taxpayers more than $100 million annually -- considerably more than Sesame Street's budget). But, the diplomats reported, MBC channel 4 showing reruns of Friends and Desperate Housewives was far more influential and popular -- even in remote, conservative areas of the country.

Talk about soft power: We know that the spread of television had a dramatic impact on values regarding the role of girls and women in countries from Brazil to India. As TV signals and cable access spread, school enrollment went up and fertility rates went down. Even in Saudi Arabia that could well hold true. And with the "digital divide" increasingly a thing of Davos conferences past, YouTube now represents this phenomenon on steroids.

We're hardly at the point of global comity and the end of national differences, of course. World Values Survey experts Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart point out that the survey shows no consistent decline in nationalism across countries, for example. And converging values don't necessarily translate into American values. For one thing, on issues like the environment and attitudes toward homosexuality, there have been considerable changes in U.S. values over time. So American values are a moving target too. Perhaps we're really all converging on the Nordic Norms of Scandinavia.

In fact, there's plenty of global convergence that Americans might not feel so comfortable about. Take recent Pew Research Center polling on attitudes regarding U.S. drone strikes: It shows that in only one country out of 20 did the majority approve of American strikes on terrorist targets -- and that one country was the United States. In Egypt, 89 percent were opposed; in China, that figure was 55 percent. Even America's close ally, Britain, saw more people (47 percent) disapprove of rather than condone (44 percent) the unmanned aerial war on terror.

So if you're American, don't expect to be welcomed with open arms by the average Pakistani anytime soon. But here's a silver lining: If you're black, Mormon, or gay, at least take some comfort in the fact that they probably hate you most of all because of your president's foreign policy -- not because of your color, creed, or sexual orientation.

Illustration by Guy Billout for FP