Nigeria’s Orwellian Biometric ID Is Brought to You by MasterCard

Imagine an ID card that remembers all of your personal records. This one card serves as your driver's license and a catch-all that includes information about your health insurance, tax payments, and bank accounts. Oh, and it's a MasterCard.

Now imagine you're required to have it to vote. By 2019, that will be the case in Nigeria, where the government is running a large-scale pilot program with MasterCard, the U.S. credit card giant. An initial 13 million Nigerians will participate in the pilot program, but all those above the age of 16 -- a whopping 160 million people -- are expected to carry the cards by 2019.

At an official launch in the Nigerian capital of Abuja last week, President Goodluck Jonathan was the first to receive one of the biometric cards, which stores a scan of its owners irises and all ten fingerprints. "The card is not only a means of certifying your identity, but also a personal database repository and payment card, all in your pocket," Jonathan said.

He also pointed to the economic benefits of the no-cost card, which will provide access to electronic banking for citizens who previously might have faced challenges qualifying for loans due to lack of identification.

While Nigeria is not the first country to launch a biometric ID card tied to a banking system, this is the first time a major banking institution has so specifically endorsed the use of an ID card. Eventually, the ID system could be used to disburse social benefits, make deposits and withdrawals, and set up savings accounts through local banks partnering with MasterCard for the initiative. MasterCard calls the initiative a "financial inclusion project," and in that sense the project holds potential as a way to more efficiently disburse government benefits -- without corrupt officials skimming off the top.

But the card has also raised concerns among many Nigerians who worry that the card could compromise their privacy -- by making it accessible either to the government or to a hacker. With a massive trove of information stored on each citizen, the card could pose as an attractive target for cyber-criminals looking for personal information.

Gus Hosein, the executive director of U.K.-based civil liberties NGO Privacy International, said these concerns are especially frightening as so far no plan has been presented to protect citizens from having their private data shared with MasterCard.

"Building a vast and expansive identity system with weak protections means, sadly, that it's going to be abused," Hosein said.

This is not Nigeria's first shot at a nationwide identification program. Ten years ago, a similar project failed after millions of cards were canceled amid double registrations and a slew of errors on the cards. That has made many Nigerians wary of the new all-encompassing ID card. And in a country plagued by a history of government corruption and abuse of power, the requirement to use an ID linked to banking in order to vote is particularly sensitive.

"There is good reason why no democratic society permits the creation of such a system, at least not without incredible safeguards," Hosein said. "Something as precious as your right to participate in elections should never be placed at risk of faulty systems, deployed by people who may be well meaning, but do not understand the risks."

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Why Myanmar’s Leaders Misled the World About Its Population

Myanmar's preliminary results of its first census in more than 30 years were pretty startling. Instead of being home to 60 million people, as the government had long estimated, the survey released on Friday found that the long-isolated country's population is closer to 51 million. "Myanmar's census falls 9 million short of estimate," the BBC reported. The AP's headline: "Myanmar discovers it has only 51 million people."

Headlines aside, though, most experts aren't actually that surprised. Demographers long claimed that the 60-million figure was wildly inflated. Moreover, they say, the Myanmar government should have known it was way off.

Between independence in 1948 and this year's census, the country formerly known as Burma had only tried counting its entire population twice: in 1973 and 1983. In general, accurate demographic information has been hard to come by in a country that was largely closed off under military dictatorship until 2011.

There's a good reason for that. Amid repression and government incompetence, millions of Burmese fled -- and population growth slowed. A painful fact that the government has been hesitant to disclose. Now, with Myanmar slowly opening to the world, the full scope of the country's demographic slowdown is coming into view.

In the absence of up-to-date census data, the 60-million number was the "most-accepted estimate," according to the AP. The government arrived at that figure after assuming that the population growth rate observed between the 1973 and 1983 censuses held steady. But Paul Cheung, co-chair of the census' International Technical Advisory Board and the former director of the U.N. Statistics Division, told Foreign Policy that was clearly a false assumption.

Most international experts agreed with Cheung since at least last year, when U.N. demographer Thomas Spoorenberg argued for a much lower estimate. Even the limited data available showed an aging population, suggesting a fertility drop that the official estimate didn't account for, Spoorenberg said. Moreover, research showed workers increasingly leaving Myanmar for Thailand, with more than 1 million Burmese registered in Thailand in 2009. When added to the many unregistered migrants and 415,000 Burmese refugees scattered around the world, the number of Burmese living outside Myanmar could easily approach 3 million, Spoorenberg calculated. And yet the government's estimate of 60 million living in Myanmar assumed zero emigration.

So really, Cheung said, "the proper question to ask is why the Myanmar government has consistently said that the population is about 60 million."

According to Spoorenberg, "Such resistance is likely rooted in the fact that, until the adoption of a new population policy in the early 1990s, Myanmar had maintained a strong pronatalist policy, mainly based on the view that the country was under-populated and that a larger population was needed to take full advantage of the country's abundant natural resources."

Analysts often mention Myanmar's persistent poverty, despite its wealth of natural resources such as metal ores and natural gas, as an indication of military rule's devastating effects.

This gets at a broader political reason why the government might have wanted to prop up its numbers. "Since General Ne Win's coup in 1962, Burmese people have been leaving the country in order to flee civil war, hunger, poverty, unemployment, and political repression," Spoorenberg wrote. "The bloody repressions that followed the 1988 revolt and the non-violent mass street protests in 2007 prompted many thousands of Burmese to leave the country." The effects of cyclone Nargis in 2008 were severely worsened by the still-isolationist government's refusal to accept timely international aid. Nargis left 140,000 people dead and millions may have left the country as a result.

Myanmar must now come to terms with the implications of being a significantly less populous nation. Those implications include a smaller consumer base and labor force, which could affect the international investment that Myanmar has been trying so hard to attract since it began embracing democratic reforms three years ago.

The survey also highlighted the country's chronic ethnic conflicts. In western Rakhine state, the site of widespread persecution of Rohingya Muslims, concerns about the listing of Rohingya as an ethnicity on the census prompted violent protests by Rakhine Buddhists. Ultimately, the government barred respondents from stating their ethnicity as Rohingya.

At the same time, ongoing conflict between ethnic Kachins and the Myanmar government prevented census workers from reaching parts of Kachin State controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization. Duncan Young, another technical advisor to the Myanmar census, said the provisional results compensated for any incomplete data by adding 1.2 million people to the total. But the International Crisis Group has warned that by drawing attention to ethnicity, the census has worsened ethnic tensions and deepened divisions between groups.

In that way, the census is representative of so much of Burma's recent history. While the new count is a step toward increased transparency, it also risks bringing the country's deep-rooted tensions -- long suppressed by an authoritarian regime -- into the open.

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