National IDs in a global world: surveillance, security, and citizenship.

Author:Lyon, David
Position:Somebody's Watching Me: Surveillance and Privacy in an Age of National Insecurity

New IDs, proliferating around the world, portend a new social and political condition. Not merely a response to post 9/11 anxieties about national security, new IDs are a novel means of governance in a world where surveillance is the dominant organizational mode. Showing a token of legitimate ID is now a basic condition for the exercise of freedom. Now that IDs depend on large-scale databases, biometrics, and sometimes RFID, what does the "new social and political condition" mean for surveillance, security and citizenship?


    The first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed a veritable explosion of new national ID card initiatives all over the world. They appeared without fanfare, as in Belgium, or with sustained controversy, as in Britain. (1) They are being installed in vast nations such as India and China and much smaller ones such as Mongolia or Angola. (2) Rich countries and poor ones, global north and global south, democratic and otherwise, with previous histories of carrying IDs or not--all kinds of countries are doing the same thing or at least a similar thing. The idea of having a biometric ID card associated with a national registry database has quickly been globalized, although how many national schemes actually take off remains to be seen. Ironically, though, many of the devices being globalized are a means of maintaining national identities.

    Such ironies deserve exploration, not least because they have a bearing on three (or more) crucial issues in today's world: surveillance, security, and citizenship. However they are introduced, national IDs involve surveillance. It is not merely that tabs may be kept on populations. Those "tabs" introduce new levels of visibility of citizens such that the state may "see" them so much better. (3) As surveillance has now become the privileged mode of many organizations, (4) this is highly significant. Closely related to this idea of surveillance is security that now has to do not only with international relations, but also with urban security and crime. This connects with risk assessments and "prudentialism" that marks a shift from preoccupation with the past to focus on the future. Prevention and pre-emption of crime are now of the essence on national and international fronts. (5) Both prevention and pre-emption of crime tie in with citizenship, a concept that is also undergoing radical change in the early twenty-first century. National identification by definition affects citizenship. But will this be for the better or for the worse--or both? The answer, as we shall see, really depends on which country or region we are talking about. The very concept of citizenship means different things in different countries.

    On the one hand, the global growth of national ID systems is striking. Often, these ID systems are interoperable--most incorporate biometrics (6) and some also add radio frequency identification (RFID). (7) Large international corporations compete for procurements and may support ID systems in quite different locations (LaserCard supplies systems in Angola and Italy, and the Canadian Permanent Resident card, for example). (8) The software have some similar protocols, which means that ID systems have similar features wherever they are found. Together, these factors mean that much more than "the state" is involved in IDs. IDs are the product of government departments, but also of business practices, through outsourcing, and technological development which, once directed towards certain ends, becomes in a sense "self-augmenting." (9) The assemblage of technologies sets up a framework within which future developments occur. The combination of "production factors" of new IDs may helpfully be thought of as a "card cartel" which, once established, defines and limits the market for such systems. (10)

    On the other hand, while the new IDs have much in common as computerized systems that enhance surveillance capacities--both government and, sometimes, corporate--these IDs also display different faces in different settings. (11) Chameleon-like, new IDs appear in their local environments in subtly varying guises. The local life of new IDs depends on historical circumstances, political traditions, and cultural differences. Indeed, without exaggeration, IDs may be viewed along a continuum that ranges from democratic documents to tools of tyranny. Marginalized people such as Tibetans in Nepal, or workers suffering abuse in Argentina, seek registration and identification documents as a basic human right. Would-be travelers from Ghana hope that their new IDs will help them avoid the humiliations of border crossings. On the other hand, in contexts of intense surveillance, such as in South Korea or the U.K., there are fears that new IDs may result in a "Big Brother" state. (12) And beyond individual states, groups such as the European Association for the Defense of Human Rights fear that civil liberties will be trampled as interoperable ID systems are deployed within the EU.

    These themes are explored in what follows: new IDs, their global growth, and their local life are examined in relation to surveillance, security, and citizenship. Building on previous work in Playing the Identity Card: Surveillance, Security and Identification in Global Perspective (13) and my Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveillance, (14) the fresh focus here is the contrast between, on the one hand, the commonalities of global growth, the new technologies (including software), and the political economies of new IDs and, on the other, their local life. None of the common features of global growth determine how new IDs will develop and function in any specific local context. The paradoxical globalization of a means of national identification illustrates broader themes of the diffusion of new technologies and of their varying reception and consequences in different cultural settings.

    Such themes presage some changes of major import. During the twentieth century, individual and collective security were managed in different ways. Today, at least two factors challenge this distinction. The distinction between internal and external security is breaking down as real and imagined threats are viewed as both global and national. New IDs exemplify the merger of internal and external security as they are expected to operate both within and beyond "national" boundaries. At the same time, risk technologies are also altering. Whereas these technologies were once based entirely on probabilistic calculation, so that what might happen could be insured against in the present, now both individual and collective aspects are in flux. Individuals are increasingly asked to take responsibility for their own fate, while simultaneously socially-based security is dismantled or reduced to a "safety net" for those unable to insure themselves. But risk is also morphing into uninsurable threats from shadowy forces, so precaution and preparedness become the order of the day.

    In this complex context, new IDs play many parts rather than just one role. Because some IDs aspire to be national IDs, they cover not just specific groups such as car drivers, but rather whole populations. This breadth speaks to the theme of preparedness and precaution. Especially since 9/11, having access to information "just in case" has been high on American and other agendas. Although the U.S. Administration is not rolling out new IDs as such, the "Real ID" plan and its successors are intended to fulfill the same goals. (15) Crime and intelligence databases may be linked using IDs, whether "real" or not. At the same time, the use of statistical surveillance methods by government departments means that some groups more than others may be singled out as threatening or risky, such as recent immigrants. Because some groups may score highly in terms of risk along several axes, including economic independence, the chances of what Oscar Gandy calls "cumulative disadvantage" are high. (16) Thus, new IDs address several issues pertaining to today's outlook of multiple uncertainties and represent significant security and surveillance technologies being used for managing populations. These technologies include not only hardware and software, but also statistical expertise. Little wonder that Louise Amoore writes of "governing by identity." (17) Identification is crucial to surveillance, which is quickly becoming a key means of governance.


    New ID card systems nicely highlight a basic paradox. They are used primarily for "national" purposes, even if they are supposed to be interoperable between some states, but their development and spread are simultaneously global. This is a global phenomenon that fosters national difference. New IDs offer a concrete case study in the debates over globalization and the demise or persistence of the nation-state. And it is a case study that illuminates several questions that surround surveillance today. If ID card systems are meant to keep tabs on whole populations, will their promised interoperability also allow for the emergence of a global surveillance system? To what extent and in what ways do new IDs contribute to the quest for local, national, and global security? What impacts do new IDs have on citizenship and, for that matter, what impacts does citizenship have on new IDs?

    The paradox mentioned above begins to resolve as soon as the character of contemporary globalization and of today's nation-states is explored. But this exploration involves a particular perspective on these matters. If globalization is seen as a kind of zero-sum game in which its spread sounds the death-knell for nations, then...

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