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Biometrics in the developing world


With just over 12 years to go to meet UN Sustainable Development goal 16.9 of providing universal legal identity by 2030, technology purpose-built for the developing world is bringing the ambition within reach. The biometrics market for the developing world, however, is distinct from that of the developed world in some significant respects, and the developing world market will have to mature for the full benefit of these advanced technologies and good intentions to be achieved.

With the recognition that insufficient identity systems are not just a symptom but actually a factor contributing to underdevelopment, access to investment in identity schemes and biometrics has increased in the developing world. The number of people globally without a legal identity is decreasing rapidly, from 1.5 billion in 2016 to 1.1 billion in 2017, according to World Bank estimates, as electronic identification (eID) systems backed by biometrics are implemented in developing nations, most notably India’s Aadhaar program.

The last billion people to be registered in legal identity schemes, however, will be the most challenging. The stakes are high, for those people, their governments, and by extension all the societies they reside in.

“If they don’t exist officially, they cannot have a stake in society, and as a consequence it’s a priority to rectify. It’s a priority for development agencies because of the opportunity to empower the development indicators,”says ID4Africa President Dr. Joseph Atick, emphasizing the scope of the issue all the way from individuals to global efforts.

While the biometrics market in the world’s most developed economies evolved originally from law enforcement, through border control, to broader use, the technology is being introduced to most developing nations as a vehicle for service delivery. “The original concept of biometrics, which was to bring in the bad guys, is moving rapidly to helping the good guys,” observes Integrated Biometrics CEO Steve Thies.

Most of the world’s largest biometrics companies are based in the world’s richest nations, as are most of their customers, and most of the industry’s revenue is drawn from those same countries. The products and solutions therefore, tend to serve significantly different needs, often in very different circumstances.

Developing world identity systems often necessitate enrollment programs carried out in challenging environments, without the social or technical infrastructure that enable biometrics in the developed world. They also necessitate difficult decisions, from procurement to deployment, that are made all the more difficult by the immaturity of the market.

The importance of strong digital identity to development and global agendas has been recognized, and the opportunity to pursue universal legal identity is already knocking.

Biometrics in the developing world

One aspect of the contrasting markets is different associations among the general public. Since identity programs in the developing world tend to be driven by public services, such as education and health care, the public is less suspicious of biometric enrollment, and often more eager to participate.

“Their perspectives are quite different,” Credence ID CEO and President Bruce Hanson told Biometric Update. “They want to get enrolled. They don’t want to spend as much time waiting in a line, while some administrator looks over this document that’s supposed to be a credential, that’s really more a piece of paper that has half-disintegrated in their pocket. The line’s a mile long, and the government is saying ‘Wait a minute, we don’t know who this person is, if they’re eligible.”

Hanson tells the story of a Nigerian biometric identity program for professional credentials in fields like dentistry, to prevent paid imposters from taking – and passing — exams on behalf of unqualified individuals. Legitimate applicants want to be enrolled, their credential is more valuable if fraud is reduced, and the whole society benefits from the assured legitimacy of its professionals.

Another Nigerian program, implemented by local company Data Infosec Consult, tracks the time and attendance of teachers in the public school system. This program promises decreased cost for the local governments running the public schools, but also benefits students attending those schools, and by extension the whole society, argues Data Infosec CEO Harold Monu.

“Apart from the savings and reduction of wastage, there is the social benefit of the teacher actually being in the classroom,” Monu told Biometric Update. “When the teacher is not in the classroom, even if the children are there, they’re not learning, and then a few years down the line, none of them will even be going. So now teachers know, if you don’t clock in and clock out, you won’t get paid, and attendance has really improved. We’re changing the way people work.”

The program is being carried out in the first 25 out of the country’s 774 local governments, and already talks have begun to extend it to secondary schools, which are run by a different level of government. The success of the program is partly due to the ability to enforce compliance, according to Monu – teachers want to be paid, so they register. The degree of compliance has not been present for all programs, however, as programs failing to motivate all stakeholders stall easily.

The Nigerian government is also considering how to effectively leverage biometric identity for the health care sector. The spectacular success of the Aadhaar program, which by itself is responsible for the majority of the reduction in the number of people with legal identity over the past year, is a model which can serve as an inspiration to other developing nations, but cannot be exactly copied. The economic, governmental, and environmental differences between nations mean that no two projects face the exact same set of challenges.

Methods of meeting all challenges appear to be available. Meeting UN Sustainable Development Goal 16:9, however, will require further evolution of the biometrics market in developing countries, in order to identify and implement the correct methods, practices, and technologies for each situation.


Geographical and infrastructure challenges mean that enrollment in developing nations must frequently take place for rural communities on mobile devices, brought to the people. They must be able to operate under battery power, and function off-line, syncing with project databases when they are able to connect to the network. “The technology’s got to come to the individual,” says Thies. “The WiFi-enabled smartphone is obviously the tool of choice for the world, as demonstrated by the population growth in smartphones.” Enrollment devices must not only be mobile and battery-powered, but also durable.

Challenges related to infrastructure and remoteness in developing countries are not uniform, but even in their most extreme current technologies are equal to them. In Indonesia, where the fourth largest population in the world is spread across thousands of islands, with frequently demanding climate conditions, the population was enrolled at an even faster rate than India enrolled people for the Aadhaar program, according to Hanson.

Common environmental challenges for enrollment programs include conditions of extreme temperature and dust which can cause devices to fail, and direct sunlight which can prevent fingerprint image capture. For devices to be truly mobile, they must lightweight, which Thies points out fortunately tends to make them more adaptable to extreme temperatures. Also, light-emitting fingerprint sensors (LES) are impervious to even direct sunlight, making them usable in conditions in which otherwise a different and sufficiently shaded location would have to be found.

Likewise, electroluminescent film is appropriate to use for mass enrollment without having to wipe the surface after each individual, because it does not collect latent prints. New mobile device and biometric technologies like these combine to provide capabilities which make previously unsuccessful or unrealistic programs possible.

Along with advances in smartphones and other mobile devices, back-end technology has also progressed enough to enable data to be collected on a device and then synced with a central database through the cloud. This not only makes enrollment easier, it also helps make the registered identity portable to other locations using the database, and potentially even to other programs.

Stakeholders seem nearly unanimous in the conviction that the necessary advances in biometric data collection technology made in the past several years are sufficient to enroll the billion people still without legal identity.

“We have to be building capacity in Africa in order for us to meet the 2030 requirement,” Dr. Atick notes. “The technology is there, the money is there, but the people – there are not enough of them.”

“The technology is mature, but the policy drivers and the training at the local level are a challenge,” Monu agrees. “We have the manpower though, that can be trained, which makes it very achievable in a short amount of time.”

Developing marketplace

The difficulty which must be addressed if UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 is to be achieved, then, is not so much one of technological capability as it one of capability in practice. That capacity requires investment of time, energy, expertise, and resources. According to World Bank Senior Economist Robert Palacios, as well as Dr. Atick, the mechanism of its delivery will be the evolving developing world identity market.

The differences between the markets for identity and biometric solutions in the developed and developing world are largely differences of capacity and competition. One of the ways the market’s immaturity manifests, Dr. Atick says, is that companies have bid on projects they were not able to carry out, and should not have been bidding on.

Among many possible examples of this is the unsuccessful implementation of a turn-key identity solution in Nigeria, as the country’s National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) Director General and CEO Aliyu Aziz told Biometric Update earlier this year.

Companies in the developing world identity market understand that in the long term, greater degrees of project success are in their best interest, Dr. Atick says. “The industry gets it, but could not afford in the past to look at this from a business development perspective.”

“The industry has continued to be opportunistic. It’s been looking for proposals, and reacting to requests for proposals,” he explains. “I think that’s changing. It’s changing because we are changing the mechanisms for the dissemination of information, and the creation of success stories, and helping people to plan ahead.” The training which Monu refers to is another aspect of the capacity building which Atick refers to.

A related problem with market’s maturity level is the difficulty motivating the establishment of foundational identity systems, as citizens tend to consider programs directly related to benefits to be more important.

“The problem here is people do not comply unless they are compelled to,” Monu says. Programs linked to service delivery, however, provide the necessary motivation. “Because the banks are in front of registration efforts, if you don’t comply, you don’t get the account.”

If politicians are able to clearly show the benefits of foundational identity systems to citizens, or link them to service delivery, their establishment will be much easier. Convincing populations of the value of carrying out the right kind of identity programs, rather than expedient ones, requires improved capacity on the part of governments.

A mature market for developing world identity systems, which could preserve the sustainability of social benefit programs among other positive results, requires a full roster of stakeholders. Those stakeholders include citizens who are being registered and receiving benefits, but it seems their support is available.

It is government policy makers, international solutions providers and local service delivery partners who can supply the needed capacity, but for that to happen by 2030 will require cooperation.

“We as an institution believe that we need to work with the industry and the governments, and we need to better coordinate different ID efforts in countries so we don’t duplicate a lot of the efforts and costs,” Palacios says. “Increasingly from our perspective we’re going to be trying to look for interoperability, and look for ways to use biometrics as a foundational element for multiple sectors, rather than creating new silos.”

In developed countries, governments have built the capacity to carry out major national identity programs. In developing countries, solutions providers are the ones positioned to fill the gaps in government capacity by exporting some of the lessons and practices from mature identity systems, according to Thies.

“The government market is just starting to be seen in the commercial world,” he says. “It’s the full monty of somebody providing for all identity needs. That’s a new industry that’s coming. It’s too complex for customers.”

Growing and growing up

The project of providing strong, digital, legal identity to 1.1 billion people is an opportunity with enormous potential for biometrics companies. There is major potential for revenue from contracts. Each contract, if the project it supports is successful, could represent a foothold in a national or local market, as well. Further, enabling improved coverage, delivery, and sustainability of social benefit programs, while enabling more effective program planning will have a major impact on the lives of many millions of underserved people.

This in turn can lead to a positive shift in global public perceptions of biometrics, balancing popular associations in the west with television police dramas with new images of public services and benefits being successfully delivered in new places, to people who have never received them before. Making those images part of future good news from the developing world is a role available to biometrics companies if they choose to seize the opportunity.

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