More on ID, this time in BC

There’s a great piece just out today from Adam Molnar, guesting on Chris Parsons’ blog, about the soon-to-be released British Columbia Services Card, which features a Near-Field Communications (NFC) chip. It’s well worth reading Chris Parsons’ blog on a regular basis anyway, so check it out!

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…)

Brazil as Surveillance Society? (1) Bolsa Família

The claim that Brazil is a surveillance society, or at least uses surveillance in the same fundamental organising way as the UK or Japan does, is based on the bureaucracy of identification around entitlement and taxation, rather than policing and security.

My previous post on the subject of whether Brazil was a surveillance society put one side of an argument I am having with myself and colleagues here: that the use surveillance in Brazil is fundamentally based on individual (and indeed commodified and largely class-based) security, rather than surveillance as fundamental social organising principle (as one might legitimately claim is the case in Britain). Now, I deliberately overstated my case and, even as I was posting, my argument was being contradicted by colleagues in the same room!

So here´s the counter-argument – or at least a significant adjustment to the argument. In most nation-states, entering into a relationship with the state involves forms of surveillance by the state of the person. This relationship is more or less voluntary depending on the state and on the subject of the relationship. In most advanced liberal democracies, the nature of surveillance is based on the nature of citizenship, particularly:

  1. the ability of citizens to establish claims to entitlement, the most fundamental to most being a recourse to the law (to protect person and property), secondly the ability to case a vote, and more something that is generally more recent in most states, the right to some kind of support from the state (educational, medical, or financial);
  2. the ability of the state to acquire funds from citizens through direct or indirect taxation, to support the entitlements of citizens, and to maintain order.

I am not going to consider law and order, or indeed electoral systems, here but rather I will concentrate on the way that surveillance operates in an area I had previously begun to consider: the bureaucracy of identification around state-citizen relations particularly in the areas of entitlement and taxation. The claim that Brazil is a surveillance society, or at least uses surveillance in the same fundamental organising way as the UK or Japan does, is based on this rather than policing and security.

There are two broad aspects: on the one side, taxation, and on the other, entitlement. I´ll deal first with the latter (which I know less about at the moment), in particular in the form of Lula´s Programa Bolsa Família (PBF, or Family Grant Program), one of the cornerstones of the socially progressive politics of the current Brazilian government. The PBF provides a very simple, small but direct payment to families with children, for each child, provided that the children go to school and have medical check-ups.

Of course these requirements in themselves involve forms of surveillance, through the monitoring of school attendance by children – for which there is a particular sub-program of the PBF called Projeto Presença (Project Presence) with its own reporting systems – and epidemiology and surveillance of nutrition through the Ministério de Saúde (Ministry of Health). However underlying the entitlement is massive compulsory collection of personal information through the Cadastro Único para Programas Sociais (CadÚnico, or Single Register for Social Programs), set up by Lula´s first administration to unify the previous multiple, often contradictory and difficult to administer number of social programs. This is, of course a database system, which as the CadÚnico website states, ¨funciona como um instrumento de identificação e caracterização socioeconômica das famílias brasileiras¨ (¨functions as an means of identification and socioeconomic caracterization of Brazilian families¨). Like most Brazilian state financial systems, CadÚnico is operated through the federal bank, the Caixa Econômica Federal (CAIXA). The CadÚnico database is founded on ¨um número de identificação social (NIS) de caráter único, pessoal e intransferível¨ (¨a unique, personal and non-transferable Social Identification Number or NIS¨). I am unclear yet how this NIS will relate to the new unique identification system for all citizens.

The PBF Card
The PBF Card

Entitlement is demonstrated with (yet another!) card, the patriotic yellow and green Cartão PBF. Like the CPF card, this is a magnetic strip card rather than a smart card, and is required for all transactions involving the PBF. Also like the CPF, but unlike many other forms of Brazilian ID, it has nothing more than the name of the recipient and the CadÚnico number printed on it. In this case the recipient is generally the mother of the children being claimed for, a progressive and practical measure shared with other family entitlement programs in Brazil.

Happy smiling PBF cardholders!
Happy smiling PBF cardholders!

The PBF card in itself may not be enough to claim as you would still need at least the Registro Geral (national ID) card to prove that you are the named holder of the PBF card. The card itself may be simply designed to generate a sense of inclusion, as the pictures of happy smiling PBF cardholders on the government websites show consistently emphasise, although of course, like so many other markers of entitlement to state support, it could also become a stigma.

The information collection to prove entitlement is quite extensive, and here I have translated roughly from the website:

  • house characteristics (number of rooms; construction type; water, sewerage and garbage systems);
  • family composition (number of members, dependents like children, the elderly, those with physical handicaps);
  • identification and civil documents of each family member;
  • educational qualification of each family member;
  • professional qualifications and employment situation;
  • income; and
  • family outgoing (rent, transport, food and others).

Although PBF is a Federal program, the information is collected at the level of individual municipalities, and there is thus the potential for errors, differences in collection methods, delays and so on to hamper the correct distribution of the money. So each municipality is required to have a committee called the Instância de Controle Social (Social Control Authority) which, whilst it may sound sinister to anglophone ears, actually refers to the control of civil society over the way that the government carries out its social programs. This is also quite a lot of information of the most personal kind and whilst, unlike in many countries there is no central authority of Commissioner for Data Protection in Brazil, there is particularly for PDF, an Observatório de Boas Práticas na Gestão do Programa Bolsa Família (Observatory for Best Practice in the Management of the PBF), which has a whole raft of measures to safeguard and protect the data, correct errors etc (what has been called habeus data principles). Effectively, this is a case of knowing exactly quis custodis ipsos custodes!

Now of course, such a large database of information about the most vulnerable people in society has the potential to be misused by a less progressive or even fascist government. Marxist analysis of early welfare systems has tended to colour our views of such programs as being solely about the management of labour on behalf of capital and the control of the working classes by the state to prevent them from more revolutionary action. For more recent times in Surveillance Studies, John Gilliom´s book, Overseers of the Poor, showed how much Federal assistance programs in the USA could impact negatively upon the lives of claimants, particularly women, in the Appalachian region, and revealed the everyday forms of resistance and adaptation that such women used to make the programs function better for them. I will have to examine more detailed anthropological studies of the PBF to see whether similar things are true of the Brazilian program. I don´t want to get too much into the effectiveness of this program now, although I am trying to examine the correlation of the PBF with apparently declining crime rates in Brazilian cities, but it is worth noting that the World Bank rates it as one of the most successful ways of dealing with extreme poverty in the world. As a general observation, it does seem that only those who object to redistributive policies full stop (or just dislike Lula himself) or those who think it does not go far enough, have any serious complaint about the PBF. But there is far more to consider here…