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How did banking and government exist before the 21st century?

I have been employed in the biometric industry for nearly twenty years. Yet despite my long immersion in this industry, I can understand when outsiders conclude that we are all insane.

Rick Agostinelli, Chief Executive Officer of Digital Persona, recently made the following statement. However, any of us in the industry could have made the same statement, with the same tone.

More than half of the people in the world have no identity credentials. As a result, they have little or no access to banking or government services.

Now when Mr. Agostinelli makes this statement, or when I make this statement, we are talking about this as a serious problem that needs to be solved. But when normal people look at the statement, their reaction is more likely to be, “Why is the second sentence related to the first?” Or, why does the lack of identity credentials necessarily RESULT in a lack of banking or government services? After all, for thousands of years of human history, banking and government services were accessible to everyone, despite the lack of biometric capabilities. Why? Because the communities were small enough that identity credentials were unnecessary.

Let’s say that you were growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. You could walk down to the bank, and the banker would know who you were. Well, to be honest, the banker was using a crude manual form of facial recognition…but you didn’t have to carry an identity credential around with you to get your money out of the bank. Similarly, any government official in the town would know who you were. If you were arrested that evening for breaking into that same bank, the constable didn’t have to match your fingerprints against a national database of prints. He’d just lock you up in his jail.

But today, we have determined (or some of us have determined) that identity credentials are essential to keep the banks and the governments running. This is partially due to the number of citizens that governments must serve – the nation of India needs to provide services for over a billion people. This may be due to other purposes also – purposes that alarm civil libertarians and criminals alike.

Whatever your industry, it’s important to take a step back and make sure that your industry is not engaged in groupthink – or, as Evgeny Morozov noted, that you’re not trying to solve the wrong problem.

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