BBC News

Pakistan's experience with identity management

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

image captionSome 96% of Pakistanis have biometric identity cards

Syeda Qir'at Musheer has just turned 18, the minimum age that entitles a Pakistani citizen to a computerised national identity card.

She has applied for one to clear the way for her college admission, she says.

"I need a domicile certificate from my native Multan district to become eligible for admission to a fashion school in Islamabad, and I can have that certificate only when I produce my national ID."

She was registered with the National Database Registration Authority (Nadra) by her parents within a month of her birth, as required under the rules.

At the time they produced what Nadra officials call "breeder" documents - a birth certificate in her case, and educational testimonials or endorsement of a village or urban ward council in the case of delayed child registrations.

Now all she needs to do is to provide Nadra with her finger prints and a digital photo for biometric identification, and then wait for a week before she gets her national ID.

Apart from her picture, her name, her parentage and her permanent and temporary addresses, her ID will also carry her registration number, and a family number - which is that of her parents. She will get a family number of her own when she gets married.

New era

Tens of thousands of people flock to Nadra centres across Pakistan each day to apply for fresh cards, renew the old ones or get their personal information corrected.

They need these cards as the basic document for a wide range of activities: opening a bank account, finding a job, getting admission in a college or a university, registering as a voter, getting a passport, buying or selling property, setting up a business.

Pakistan's experience with identity management dates back to 1973, when the eastern part of the country had just seceded and questions were being raised over who was a Pakistani and who was not.

So a registration act was introduced in the parliament to create an authority that would register Pakistani citizens and issue them with a photo ID.

In 2001, this authority was merged with a national database organisation to create Nadra, with the task of computerising all citizen data.

In 2007, Nadra introduced what is known as the multi-biometric system, consisting of finger identification and facial identification data that was to be included in the citizen's computer profile.

"By now, Nadra has issued 91 million computer generated cards, which is 96% of the entire adult population," says Nadra deputy chairman Tariq Malik.

"This is one of the world's largest national databases."

"During the last 40 years, we have graduated from identity management to database management, and we have now entered an era in which we can make intelligent use of this database to make our economic and political processes transparent and also to roll out services to the citizens," he says.

For example, Nadra has been using this database to identify mutilated bodies of the victims of a suicide bombing or an air crash.

It also uses it to identify people affected by natural disasters or groups below poverty line who need to be listed for the government's financial inclusion programmes.

image captionThe electronic ID contains extensive information about its holder

Following the 2010 floods, the government used this information to disburse nearly 55 billion rupees ($586m; £381m) of donor funds to more than 2.4 million affected families.

"They were issued automated teller machine (ATM) cards with pin codes to draw cash from "virtual" accounts even though most of them had never opened a bank account in their lives," says Mr Malik.

More recently, Nadra cleaned up Pakistan's voters' list, expunging some 37 million "fake" voters from it and adding more than 36 million new adults who had not been registered.

It now plans to set up a short message service (SMS) to tell voters exactly which polling station they are registered at.

"This will disenfranchise the 'powers' that used fake votes and ghost polling stations to engineer elections throughout Pakistan's chequered electoral history," Mr Malik says.

Risky downside

With all its merits, the Nadra database can turn into a double-edged sword if it falls into the wrong hands.

A recent study conducted by Nadra for the revenue department identified more than 700,000 well-off people who were not paying taxes.

The list was drawn up after collating Nadra data with the frequency of passport renewals by certain individuals, the number of car registrations in their name or in the names of their family members, their property transactions, and the number of bank accounts they maintained.

This so-called "intelligent" use of Nadra's database may have implications for the privacy of the citizens.

"This is a heavy cross that I carry on my shoulder," admits Mr Malik.

"We are in the process of building safeguards against any misuse of this data. Nadra is run by a board of directors who are answerable to parliamentary standing committees. But we understand that this is not enough, so we are now drafting a piece of legislation to lay down a set of legal safeguards."

Nadra officials believe they still face challenges, but with the amount of experience behind them, they say they are well on their way to convert the entire Pakistani nation into a mammoth family tree, complete with an integrated system of information about their social, political and economic life.