The Future of Biometrics? Not Novel Fintech. Rationing, Universal Basic Income, & Border Enforcement
Biometric schemes and digital identity systems more broadly are often touted by the development community and tech sector as a route to greater financial inclusion. For many, this entails an emphasis on relatively novel and debt-driven forms of fintech, such as mobile credit lending or automated credit scoring, and other digital services. I want to suggest that certain innovations may be short-lived in light of the most pressing crises of our era. In this blog post, I imagine how biometrics might be repurposed in the coming decades as we face a de-growth, low or post-carbon future. This future will be structured by diminishing returns on fossil fuels alongside escalating ecological and environmental costs, including the impacts of climate change.
As the new IPCC report makes clear, we are already facing catastrophic changes due to climate change even as global emissions continue their upward trajectory. At the same time, as many thinkers within the post-carbon and degrowth movement point out, the world is also faced with depleting reserves and diminishing returns on fossil fuels, an abundant but ultimately finite resource that is becoming increasing more expensive (politically and financially) and energy-intensive to extract. An almost taken-for-granted driver of modern life, fossil fuels have seeped into virtually every aspect of life in the highly-industrialized world (even renewable energy alternatives rely upon them) yet are not properly accounted for within orthodox economic theory. And their ecological and environmental toll, though already evident for decades, is now one of the pressing existential crises of our time. Despite the techno-optimistic promises of leaders from various sides of the political spectrum—from progressive Green New Deal promoters to pro-oil climate deniers to techno-futurist billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates—the world is likely headed towards a future of degrowth and austerity. This future may unfold in radically different ways across different regions and time scales, but many thinkers predict that we will eventually have to cope with a world less reliant on fossil fuels with far less industrially-driven material prosperity.
Biometric programs are very likely to be repurposed to meet the needs of this future. Take, for example, future rationing of fuel, food, or myriad other fossil fuel-derived consumer goods. Just as the Indian government manages the distribution of food and fuel subsidies through the Aadhaar biometric system, it is likely that other countries will follow suit under conditions of scarcity and crisis. As evidenced by recent concerns around the UNHCR's biometric program, such forms of distribution are not without controversy.Writing about the Aadhaar-based public distribution system (PDS), Silvia Masiero argues that, while designed to combat corruption and food-grain diversion, "a biometric PDS does not prevent the exclusion errors pervading the program, and supports the transition to a cash transfer system whose developmental outcomes are still uncertain." (Interestingly, her research also showed that PDS beneficiaries tended to place a higher value on material rations over monthly sums of cash). Regardless of such limitations, however, the (at least touted) efficiency and scalability of biometric redistribution programs likely mean they will only expand in use.
Similarly, in the face of economic downturn and growing unemployment, governments may turn to some form of universal basic income (UBI). In South Africa, social grants in the form of cash transfers are delivered biometrically to some of the country's poorest citizens. According to Keith Breckenridge, while financial institutions have been shaping the trajectory of the biometrics industry, "separating the creditworthy wheat from the financially delinquent chaff", the possibility still exists that "biometric citizenship might do something very different...directing life-saving resources to the very young, the weak and the old." Despite pressing concerns about data protection, surveillance, technical failures, and exclusion (which I, among others, have written about), biometric programs may come to serve essential redistributive functions well beyond the humanitarian/aid sectors in coming decades.
Far more troubling is the use of biometric programs for migration management and border control. Driven in no small part by anxieties around climate change, many international bodies and governments are deploying biometric databases to limit, regulate, and predict patterns of irregular and regular migration. The EURODAC database, for example, is used by immigration authorities across the EU to crosscheck the fingerprints of asylum applicants and determine whether they had previously entered Europe irregularly or applied for asylum in another member state. This enables European countries to manage (and, in many cases, shift) responsibility for asylum processes. While climate change will no doubt contribute to greater international migration flows and internal displacement, it's important to emphasize that the vast majority of the world's refugees are hosted in countries in the Global South, a pattern likely only to continue. Nevertheless, driven by nativist politics and climactic metaphors about people "flooding" into wealthier countries, many nations in the Global North are already turning to biometrics for the purposes of border enforcement.
Data systems-focused digital identity researchers must gain a much better understanding of energy use and environmental and ecological change if we are to map the long-term future of biometrics. This post is ultimately speculative on my part and it is of course difficult to make predictions in this time of heightened global uncertainty. But I think it is likely that biometrics will be repurposed by governments and international organizations as they navigate the gradual transition to a lower carbon future and attendant degrowth, scarcity, and ecological and environmental disruption. As trends in Africa, Europe, South Asia, and elsewhere suggest, this biometric future is already underway. Whether it will primarily serve progressive, redistributive ends or simply harden global inequalities has yet to be determined.