When people become data records, ‘low-resolution’ citizens struggle

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When identity-authenticating systems are unevenly implemented, people whose identifying data contains errors or inconsistencies struggle to access connected government services.

A study of the intersection of data and identity finds that people who are “high-resolution” can navigate government systems easily, while those who are “low-resolution” can struggle.

According to a paper titled “Seeing Like an Infrastructure: Low-resolution Citizens and the Aadhaar Identification Project” and published Oct. 18, “high resolution” means that data and identification clearly align, allowing people to access any government service they need. But for so-called “low-resolution citizens,” access can be an uphill battle.

“What does it mean to turn a person into a data record? What does that relationship mean to the way the state/citizen relationship unfolds?” asked Ranjit Singh, report co-author, explaining the basis of his research.

He used Aadhaar, India’s biometrics-based identification system, as a test case. When registering with it, people provide fingerprints from all 10 fingers, an iris scan from each eye and a photo for facial recognition. They receive a number that they can then use to access government-provided welfare and other services.

The reason for collecting so many biometrics, Singh said, is that system managers realized early on that fingerprints are subject to change. For instance, they become less clear as people age or when they do manual labor. What’s more, the technology for reading fingerprints may fail, in situations where there is no electricity or network connection. The other biometrics provide redundancy in identification: If the fingerprint fails, try the iris scan and if that fails, use facial recognition.

“It’s like a Jenga [game],” said Singh, a postdoctoral scholar at Data & Society, an independent, nonprofit research organization focusing on the social implications of data and automation. “You’re building one technology on top of the other to make the system work.”

In the United States the Real ID Act, passed in 2005 and becoming enforceable in May 2023, requires that states use biometrics to ensure the authenticity of ID applicants – a move that met heavy pushback.

“Biometrics are always associated with these particular notions of privacy and surveillance, and that collection of this data is always associated with the idea that you’re criminalizing the population,” Singh said. But “it’s a broader problem than just biometrics. It’s a problem of what data does a state bureaucracy need in order to basically give you access to your rights? And on the citizen side, the challenge becomes about how do I represent myself to the state in order for me to able to claim my rights.”

One population that often manifests as low-resolution for identification is people who are transgendered. If an ID assigns a trans person a gender category, they could struggle to prove otherwise, Singh said.

“People simply trying to claim affiliation to a particular identity or gender identity or race identity and having trouble doing that, and then in that moment you’re manifesting in low resolution in information systems and your life is deeply affected by it,” he said. For instance, “it is the matching of data records that is a precondition for access such as access to voting rights, [but] if you’re not being represented accurately, you have a right to change that information.”

In a sense, the basic issue is “garbage in, garbage out.” If someone mistypes a name or address while filling out ID papers, that mistake snowballs when the person goes to use the ID to access services.

But the larger consideration is that “ID systems are getting more complicated because they’re no longer used for a single purpose,” Singh said. Whereas it used to be straightforward – someone needs a service, they get an identity document, they show it and they get the service – now data systems can communicate with one another, and one ID can be used for many things at once.

“It is often the case that if you’re rendered marginal in one system, that often becomes a way of becoming marginal in other systems,” Steven Jackson, report co-author and associate professor of information science at Cornell University, told the Cornell Chronicle. “If you make access a little bit more difficult for some people, that makes certain people’s lives a little bit harder. But for others, it just flows. The result is a differentiating impact, and a subtle but important contribution to inequality.”

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