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Identity card programmes not only cost governments billions, but also give rise to significant human rights problems and potential miscarriages of justice

Nationwide ID programmes are established for a variety of reasons – race, politics and religion often drive their deployment. Studies of national ID card programmes have consistently found that certain ethic groups are disproportionately targeted for ID checks by the police. During the Rwandan genocide, ID cards designating their holders as Tutsis cost thousands of people their lives.

An ID card enables disparate identifying information about a person that is stored in different databases to be easily linked and analyzed through data mining techniques. This creates a significant privacy vulnerability, especially given the fact that government usually outsource the administration of ID programmes to unaccountable private companies.

ID cards are also becoming ‘smarter’. For example, biometrics identification is widely used today. Biometrics is the identification or verification of someone's identity on the basis of physiological or behavioral characteristics. It involves comparing a previously captured unique characteristic of a person to a new sample provided by the person. This information is used to authenticate or verify that a person is who they say they are.

We have campaigned across the world against the introduction of multi-purpose identification policies. We coordinated actions and led research initiatives in Australia, Canada, the Philippines, the UK and the US and led an international coalition against the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s policy on biometric passports. We work with our international partners to ensure that debates over identity systems are sufficiently informed about the risks of abuse and the challenges in deploying identity systems.


Shannon Kisch's picture

Since mid-2012 the Hebrew University International Human Rights Clinic has been collaborating with Privacy International to produce research about the state of privacy laws and protections in Israel and worldwide.

Last week marked the launch of a long-anticipated pilot of a controversial Israeli biometric database, a project that has been the target of civil society protest and the subject of a challenge in the Israeli Supreme Court.

While there is no shortage of institutions maintaining databases containing personal information of large sections of Israeli society – Israel’s Defense Force, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and the Election Authorities, to name just a few – this latest effort raises particular concerns about privacy and the protections of civil liberties.

Opinion piece
Kevin Donovan's picture

Below is an excerpt of an article that recently appeared on Slate, written by our partner Kevin Donovon, a researcher at the University of Cape Town, and Carly Nyst, Head of International Advocacy at Privacy International:

"Move over, mobile phones. There’s a new technological fix for poverty: biometric identification. Speaking at the World Bank on April 24, Nandan Nilekani, director of India’s universal identification scheme, promised that the project will be “transformational.” It “uses the most sophisticated technology … to solve the most basic of development challenges.” The massive ambition, known as Aadhaar, aims to capture fingerprints, photographs, and iris scans of 1.2 billion residents, with the assumption that a national identification program will be a key ingredient to “empower poor and underprivileged residents.” The World Bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, effusively summed up the promise as “just stunning.”

Maria Xynou's picture

Next week, the European Parliament will make an important decision affecting one of the world’s most vulnerable and stigmatised groups of people: asylum seekers. This decision is part of a larger debate about privacy and function creep, about authorities breaking promises that were made when personal information was collected and using it for new purposes.

Carly Nyst's picture

Privacy is internationally recognized as a fundamental right. Yet the confines of the right to privacy are subject to never-ending games of tug-of-war between individuals, governments and corporations. These games are rarely fair – individuals are often under-informed and lack the capacity to assert and protect their privacy, while those who seek to erode it are increasingly overbearing and secretive. This is particularly the case in developing countries, where the absence of adequate legal and institutional frameworks and safeguards facilitates unhindered corporate intrusion into privacy. Governments also collect and share excessive amounts of personal data in the name of development, security and the modernization of public administration. In many developing countries, though constitutional provisions may already exist, privacy is still being entrenched, and the capacity of human rights organizations to educate and advocate is still growing. But in the meantime, governments are spying on their citizens, corporations are buying and selling personal data, and individuals are consistently losing the tug-of-war. 

Emma Draper's picture

In February 2012, the PI team travelled to India, Bangladesh and Hong Kong to meet with our local partners in the region and speak at four conferences they had organized. For more information on the trip, please read our blog. We also got the chance to interview our partners in India and Bangladesh on the privacy issues facing them at the moment - this video is the result of those conversations. 

Many thanks to Michelle Leddon for creating this video.

Privacy International, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Media and Communications Studies (CMCS), are pleased to present the study "European Privacy and Human Rights (EPHR) 2010", funded by the European Commission's Special Programme "Fundamental Rights and Citizenship," 2007-2013.

EPHR investigates the European landscape of national privacy/data protection laws and regulations as well as any other laws or recent factual developments with and impact on privacy. The study consists of 33 targeted reports, an overview presenting a comparative legal and policy analysis of main privacy topics and a privacy ranking for all the countries surveyed.

Privacy International has conducted an analysis of the country reports. Our research team has taken additional information from other sources to provide the summary information below for each country, noting the key developments and identifying the state of affairs.


This report investigates the probable effect of the proposed UK national identity card system on people who are marginalised, who suffer social disadvantage or exclusion, and those who are disabled. The work focuses on the biometrics element of the government’s proposals (specifically facial recognition, fingerprinting and iris scanning).

The Report provides a specific assessment of the recently published biometrics trial conducted by the UK Passport Service (UKPS), and compares these findings with other research.



Proposals for identity (ID) cards have provoked public outrage and political division in several countries. In this paper Simon Davies analyses the key elements of public opposition to ID Card schemes, and profiles the massive 1987 Australian campaign against a national ID card.


The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism published his report on privacy and anti-terrorism powers. PI staff members advised the Special Rapporteur on this project.

The report identifies the policy trends around the world, the extraneous powers sought by some governments, the use and banning of technologies to enhance surveillance, and the abuses that have arisen.

This report is only available as a PDF, and is also available on the UNOHCHR website:  announcement and report.

The Special Rapporteur makes the following recommendations.

Emma Draper's picture

PI spent the first half of February in Asia, visiting our regional partners and speaking at events. Our trip began in Delhi, where the Centre for Internet and Society (in collaboration with the Society in Action Group) had organized two consecutive privacy conferences – an invite-only conclave on Friday 3rd February and a free symposium open to the public on Saturday 4th February. The conclave consisted of two panels, the first focusing on the relationship between national security and privacy, the second on privacy and the Internet. We were seriously impressed with the calibre of the speakers CIS and SAG had gathered – the panels included a Supreme Court Advocate, a Member of Parliament and the Former Chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (the Indian equivalent of MI-6 and the CIA) – but Gus and Eric held their own!


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