Several countries, including South Africa and India, have recently implemented broad systems for collecting and storing their citizens biometric information. But analysts and communications experts say they can’t recall a country trying to gather biometrics as rapidly as Pakistan is doing, according to the Washington-based American newspaper.
In addition to setting up biometric verification systems at tens of thousands of retail points run by carriers, the cellphone companies have launched massive advertising campaigns and sent mobile vans around the country to accelerate the process. About half of all SIMs have so far been verified.
The companies are warning subscribers that their SIM (subscriber identity module) cards will not work unless the owners' fingerprints are entered and verified against the database maintained by the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA). They have to show their computerized national identity cards (CNICs) and fingerprints. If the scanner matches their print with the one in a government database, they can keep their SIM card. If not, or if they don't show up, their cellphone service is cut off.
The current SIM registration drive is part of the government's new counter terrorism campaign. Cellphones have been used in the past to detonate explosive devices as well as to make extortion calls. Identification of SIM cards is expected to discourage such acts of terror and help track down the perpetrators.
The use of Big Data like Pakistan's biometric database is not limited to catching terrorists and criminals. It can also be used to significantly improve governance. Here's how Tariq Malik, the architect of Pakistan's NADRA, describes it in a recent piece for Forbes magazine:
BIG Data can now be leveraged for a variety of public uses, and re-uses. It can strengthen the link between citizens and state to enhance state capacity, and its applications are varied—ranging from disaster management to social service delivery.
Collecting, storing and processing structured and unstructured information is an endeavor that is both massive and meticulous. But thanks to advancing big data technology, it’s more feasible today than ever before. BIG Data can now be leveraged for a variety of public uses, and re-uses. It can strengthen the link between citizens and state to enhance state capacity, and its applications are varied—ranging from disaster management to social service delivery.
Consider Pakistan’s National Database And Registration Authority (NADRA) that houses one of the world’s largest multi-biometric citizens database, consisting of ten fingerprints, digital photographs and biographic attributes of each citizen. More than 121 million identities are stored in this database. When floods suddenly hit Pakistan in 2010, over 20 million citizens were displaced. Government wanted to provide monetary subsistence and aid for the rehabilitation and reconstruction effort; however, the problem was that while traditional aid could be dropped via helicopter, cash could not. They were further challenged with verifying claimants; specifically, identifying whether or not they belonged to a calamity hit area.
How could Pakistan support those affected by the disaster? The NADRA had a simple task to perform: cross verify citizen thumb prints with information stored in its database, then check their permanent address. The result was nothing short of miraculous. Essentially, big data allowed policymakers to know who the victims were and where they lived at the time of the crisis. Smart cards were quickly loaded with cash to help victims with rehabilitation efforts. More than $1 billion U.S. was disbursed without a single misappropriated penny. The process was swift and transparent, and international auditors were taken aback.
All of this made international aid donors happy, since it cut down their cost of administration, eliminated doubts of corruption and narrowed the trust deficit. But more importantly, the state enforced its writ and citizens realized for the first time that the state is there for them in times of need.
At last count, just 800,000 of Pakistan’s 180 million people paid direct taxes. Integrating data across various government databases, then reconciling it with the citizen database along with NADRA big data analytics helped identify 3.5 million tax evaders. It is estimated that if a basic minimum tax rate were applied, Pakistan would have $3.5 billion right away. Although big data analytics is no substitute for radical reform, it at least generates a healthy debate for tax reform.
It’s been argued that state capacity is essentially “extractive capacity”; the ability to effectively tax its citizens and plough it back for public welfare. Advanced data analytics on big data provides an important linchpin in this ongoing debate. As NADRA’s experience illustrates, many fragile states face an even more basic challenge: the ability to accurately count and register its citizens. To collect and process big data in a way that does not compromise citizen privacy can have powerful development externalities, including the ability to build state capacity through tax collection—and avoid approaching the International Monetary Fund with a begging bowl.
Big data analytics for government is a rapidly evolving field, offering exciting opportunities that, when explored and applied, can help fragile states uncover powerful and effective methods for optimizing governance.
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