Identification and biometric technology


The implementation of social protection schemes requires the correct identification of beneficiaries. In a growing number of countries, particularly in developing countries, biometric technology is increasingly used for the identification of beneficiaries of social protection programmes, including through fingerprints, iris and facial recognition. In most developed counties with better civil registration and national ID systems in place, the use of biometric technology is mainly limited to the area of law enforcement and security, but rarely to social protection. The proliferation of biometric technology raises some questions with regard to the realization of human rights, particularly with respect to the protection of personal data and privacy, non-discrimination, and the inclusion of vulnerable groups.

Appropriate legal frameworks and their effective enforcement are key to ensuring that identification procedures are applied in a way that respects and promotes human rights. In this regard, personal information should be kept private and free from misuse and should be collected only when necessary and only to the extent that is necessary and lawful. This further requires ensuring data is collected with the knowledge and consent of the subject, is accessible to the subject, and is accurate, complete and up-to-date. Access to this information should be clearly regulated and sharing of information strictly limited to exchanges necessary for the functioning of the system. Sound measures need to be put in place to ensure the security of the information stored and to prevent unauthorized access.

Photo credit: “Solutions for Society Biometrics- Creative Commons” by NEC Corporation of America (CCBY 2.0 via Flickr).



Expert Commentaries

Achieving Development at the Cost of The Right to Privacy? The Promise and Peril of New Technologies in Social Protection Programmes.

  Information and communication technologies and social protection In recent years, donors, development agencies and poverty reduction initiatives have increasingly turned towards social protection as an effective tool for addressing extreme poverty and accelerating development in the world’s poorest countries. The term refers to the provision of benefits in cash or in kind to secure […]

Biometrics Use for Social Protection Programmes in India Risk Violating Human Rights of the Poor

Usha Ramanathan, Independent law researcher on poverty and rights

Legal Cases

The Right of Children with HIV to Privacy in Kenya

Summary: This case concerns a directive issued by President Uhuru Kenyatta ordering the collection of data and the preparation of a report pertaining to school-going children, guardians, and expectant and breastfeeding mothers living with HIV. The High Court of Kenya at Nairobi found this action to be in violation of the rights to privacy and […]


The Humanitarian Metadata Problem: “Doing no harm” in the digital era

New technologies continue to present great risks and opportunities for humanitarian action. To ensure that their use does not result in any harm, humanitarian organisations must develop and implement appropriate data protection standards, including robust risk assessments. However, this requires a good understanding of what these technologies are, what risks are associated with their use, […]

Is biometric technology in social protection programmes illegal or arbitrary? An analysis of privacy and data protection (ESS ─ Working Paper No. 59)

Social protection programmes require processing significant data amounts, including often-sensitive information such as household assets, health status and physical or intellectual disabilities. Increasingly, social protection programmes use unique, intimate biometric-technology data such as fingerprints, iris structure and face topologies. Inextricably linked to the individual body, they are more sensitive than other types of personal information. […]

Cash at Your Fingertips: Biometric Technology for Transfers in Resource-Rich Countries

Cash transfers are often a good way for developing countries to address economic and social problems. They are less expensive than directly providing goods and services and allow recipients the flexibility to spend on what they need the most, but for many developing countries, the technical requirements for large-scale programs have been prohibitive. Now, however, […]

Identification for Development: The Biometrics Revolution

This paper surveys 160 cases where biometric identification has been used for economic, political, and social purposes in developing countries. About half of these cases have been supported by donors. Recognizing the need for more rigorous assessments and more open data on performance, the paper draws some conclusions about identification and development and the use […]

Social Protection and Human Rights