Here comes the US ID-card push

For a while now, I’ve been wondering why the US didn’t attempt to push for a national biometric ID card system in the wake of the 9/11 bombings.

Given reported statements from biometrics industry bosses about 9/11 being ‘what we’ve been waiting for’ and so on, one might have expected there to be a major effort in this direction but officially, as Zureik and Hindle (2004) point out, the International Biometrics Industry Association (IBIA) was relatively cautious in its post-9/11 press work, although it argued that biometrics had a major role to play in the fight against terrorism. Even the 9/11 Commission didn’t recommend a national ID card scheme, instead limiting itself in its final report to In its final report, to recommending a “biometric entry-exit screening system” for travelers in and out of the USA.

Part of this is because of the uneasy relations between the federal government and states governments, and suspicion of the former from the latter, and particularly from the political right has meant national ID cards have always been out of the question, even in an era of identification. So even though ID is frequently required in social situations, especially in dealing with banks, police and government agencies, the US relies on the ubiquitous driver’s licenses, which are issued by states not by the federal government. I remember from my time living in the US (in Virginia) as a non-driver, that in order to have valid form of ID, I had the choice of either carrying my passport or getting a special non-driver’s driver’s license, which always struck me simply as an absurd commentary on the importance of the automobiles in US life because, being young at the time, the nuances of federal-state relationships escaped me. And of course, passports won’t cut it for most, as less than 50% of US citizens have one.

So, if the apparently ubiquitous threat of terrorism was not going to scare states’ rights advocates and the right in general into swallowing the industry lines about security that they might usually have lapped up, what would? Well, the one thing that scares the right more than terrorism – Mexicans! More seriously, the paranoia about undocumented migrants combined with the spiralling cost of oppressive yet clearly ineffective border control (walls, drones, webcams, vigilantes etc. etc.) seems to have no done what the fear of terrorism could not, and inspired a push on both the centre and the right for ID cards – not that there’s much evidence that biometric ID cards will do a better job of excluding undocumented migrants, given that they do nothing to address what’s driving this migration – the demand for cheap, tax-free labour in the USA.

Today, not only the beltway insider’s bible, the Washington Post has an editorial demanding biometric social security cards for all (and a concomitant reduction in spending on hardening the border) following on from a cross-party senate recommendation, but also the Los Angeles Times, a paper which in the past has often been wary of the march to a ‘surveillance society’ – indeed it was the first major US newspaper to use this term, way back in 1970 as well as publishing critics like Gary Marx (see Murakami Wood, 2009) – has an op-ed arguing for a national ID card. The LA Times version, written by Robert Pastor, also claims that this is necessary to deal with voter fraud, a constant concern of the right and which always has a strong undertone of racism, so it’s unsurprising coming after a black Democrat has been elected as President for a second time in a tight election. Ironically, however, the President whose supporters are clearly the target of such attacks, has recently made it clear that he is also a supporter of a ‘tamper-proof’ national ID system.

No-one has yet made the international competition argument that is also so often used in these debates (‘if India and Brazil can do it, then surely the USA can’), but this debate is now ramping up in a way that even 9/11 couldn’t manage. Interesting times ahead…


Murakami Wood, David. “The Surveillance Society’: Questions of History, Place and Culture.” European Journal of Criminology 6.2 (2009).
Zureik, Elia, and Karen Hindle. “Governance, security and technology: the case of biometrics.” Studies in Political Economy 73 (2004).
(thanks to Sarah Soliman and Aaron Martin for the newspaper articles…)

Identification in Japan (Part 1)

Just as I did in Brazil, I am going to be looking a little at the way in which systems of government information and identification work in Japan.

One of the immediately obvious things is that Japan has no national system of ID cards. Instead, as in the UK, the Driving Licence is used as a de-facto ID. The Japanese Driving License until recently was rather like that in Brazil, in that it connected to individual strongly to the family though carrying the honseki, the address where the koseki (family registration) was registered. However, this section can now be left blank and may be removed altogether in the future. The current driving license has a photo but no other biometric data, and whilst being a plastic card with a credit card form factor, is not any kind of smart card. There’s a really nice photo-essay on the process of obtaining a Japanese driving license on super-otaku, Danny Choo’s site.

The koseki is a very traditional way of registering people based on their family’s place of origin or residency and can often stretch back many generations with details of parents, grandparents etc. The individual is no more than one name on this register. The koseki is simply a computer record these days, although paper print-outs are used in more formal identification procedures, but very few people carry a copy of their koseki around with them.

In addition to the koseki, there is a jyuminhyou (Residents’ Register), a current address register, which every local authority keeps. As with the koseki, there was an associated old paper certificate for many years. In 1999, the old Resident Registration Law was updated and came into effect in 2002 and this included a provision to introduce a voluntary Resident Registration Card. This is a smart card, and is supposed to make access to local services easier, though some see it as a precursor to a full national ID-card scheme, especially as from 2004 the card could also be used to do other things online, like tax-returns. The suspicions are also because of the way in which the card as introduced along with a new system for connecting up all the local authority residents’ registry systems in Japan, juki-net. I’ll write more about this tomorrow as we are going to talk to the official responsible for the implementation of the card and juki-net at Lasdec, the Local Authorities Systems Development Center.* On Friday afternoon, I will also be meeting up with Ogasawara Midori, a freelance journalist who specialized in covering the juki-net controversy and is also a former student of my future boss, Professor David Lyon.

There is of course an exception to the lack of national ID. Foreign residents often get very upset that they are forced to carry the gaikokujin touroku shoumeisho (Certificate of Alien Registration). This is seen as discriminatory and it is particularly so in the case of families who are identified by the state as ‘Korean’ or ‘Chinese’, whose increasingly distant ancestors came from those countries. The gaikokujin touroku shoumeisho was also particularly controversial as it included fingerprinting requirements for Koreans and Chinese that were seen as a product of the colonial period, but which were only removed in 1999. But then, following on from reactions to 9/11, and G8 plans for standardized biometric passports and visas, they were reintroduced in 2007 along with fingerprinting and facial photographs of all foreigners at the border. In one small progressive step however, permanent Korean and Chinese residents would not have the ‘colonial stigma’ reintroduced.

Foreigners are also not included on the jyuminhyou except at the discretion of local officials, although indications are that they will be included from 2012 when the system in further rationalised, although it is probably down to the campaigns for change from naturalised and long-term foreign residents like Ardudou Debito.

*Although as I am also going ‘out on the town’ with an important figure in Shinjuku urban planning (and regular in the Golden Gai stand-up bar neighbourhood), I might not get round to writing this sequel up until Friday morning.

Resident Registration Card

Identity and Identification in Brazil (continued)

…the Brazilian driving licence is a goldmine of personal information…

I spent a little while over the last couple of days examining the actual material identity documents currently required in Brazil. Here are some pictures with a little explanation. There will be a lot more in the final article!

The first is the simplest but in many ways the most important to life-chances. This is the Cadastro de Pessoas Físicas (CPF) (Register of Physical (or Natural) Persons) card (or Taxpayer’s Card).


‘Pessoas Físicas’ is a a piece of legalese that is draws a distinction between humans and other ‘legal persons’, like corporations or governments. The CPF number is issued to all those who pay tax and is essential if one wants any formal work. The actual document is a blue plastic card like old-style credit cards, which also has a machine readable magnetic strip on the back.

The number is also required for many other government transactions, and it is, apparently a major disaster if you lose the card, or if for some reason, your CPF number is rescinded (which can happen if you don’t pay tax in Brazil for more than a year, for example if you are abroad, without explanation). Many people who live in the favelas, and who are involved in the shadow economy do not have a CPF, which is a severe obstacle to social inclusion.

The second document is the Registro Geral (General Registry) (ID) card, a double-sided piece of thick paper, just larger than a credit card. It is oriented vertically at the front and horizontally at the back.

RG card

As I noted in the first post I made on this subject, the RG card cross-references the CPF and also birth certification (it lists the full names of both mother and father and city and state of origin). This card is the one that is being replaced by the new RIC smartcard ID system.

Finally, we have the Carteira Nacional de Habilitação, the driving licence which, despite its name, is issued at state rather than national-level. The colour and format differs from state-to-state, however they all have pretty much the same level of information (a lot!) and cross-identification with other forms of ID. This one is from Paraná, which is a paper usually folded in half horizontally. It is specifically forbidden to laminate it.


The Brazilian driving licence is a goldmine of personal information. Partly this is because the licence had been intended to be a unifying piece of identification (a practice typical of ‘autocentric’ cultures!), containing all the information on both the CPF card and the RG card, and more. This will now not be the case following the issuing of the new RIC cards, so it will be interesting to see if the quantity of information on these licences will be reduced or, if not, what the justification will be for having this much visible personal information on one paper document.

Identity and Identification in Brazil

My host and colleague here at PUCPR, Rodrigo Firmino, and I are working on a small bit of research and a paper for The Second Multidisciplinary Workshop on Identity in the Information Society (IDIS 09), at the the London School of Economics, on June 9th this year.

Our paper is based around a case of identity theft, which is endemic in Brazil, which we use to open up the laws, practices and technologies of identification here. One thing that is already clear is that Brazil is a highly bureaucratic state – for example, the forms you need to fill in just to get a mobile phone are incredible in their detail – yet the forms of identification which one needs for every transaction with the state and many private organisations too, are highly insecure.

One example is that every personal cheque has printed on it not only the usual information (bank name and address, bank sort code, account holder name and account number), but also has the 11-digit Cadastro de Pessoas Fisicas (CPF) (a taxpayer’s card) number and the 9-digit Registro Geral (RG) (the national ID card) number. This must be a utter joy to fraudsters and identity thieves!

What’s more, all these are not just numbers in a database somewhere but physical documents in their own right, and on each there is a lot of this cross-identification: the CPF card also has the name and date of birth, the CPF number is ubiquitous, appearing also on the RG card and the driving licence. The latter has its own 11-digit registration number, but also has the RG number, name, and place and date of birth. What is even more interesting is that the RG card not only contains a photo and a thumbprint (the state database contains prints of all 10 fingers and thumbs), but also the names of both parents. This means it can be related more easily to the birth certificate. It reminds me a little of the Japanese system which still prioritises the family above the individual in some ways, but there is no actual equivalent of the koseki, the Japanese family register.

Now, in the name of security and “para integrar os bancos de dados de diversos órgãos dos sistemas de identificação do Brasil” (to inegrate the databases of the diverse organisations of identification systems in Brazil), the Ministry of Justice is proposing to merge some of these – the RG, CPF, Driving Licence and Electoria Regisirtation, into a new, smart, Registro de Identidade Civil (RIC) card based on a unique number. Whilst this will have many of the same problems as new smart ID systems everywhere else, at the very least it might stop Brazilian citizens carrying around multiple documents that list almost everything thieves and fraudsters need and can access without any sophisticated equipment. The process is due to start now, and run until 2017, so we will be taking a look at this as it proceeds.

I’ll put some pictures up with explanations later today…