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.