Biometric Belonging: Identification and Security in Urban Pakistan

ZEHRA HASHMI — Doctoral Program in Anthropology & History and Center for South Asian Studies, University of Michigan


Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) began its operations in 2000 by launching a multi-biometric (fingerprints, facial, and iris recognition) electronic identity card. NADRA claims to be one of the largest centralized databases in the world, hosting data from over 96 million citizens. Recently many Pashtuns, particularly migrants to urban areas, have had their NADRA cards blocked through a supposedly automated algorithmic process. This paper will trace the lines leading out of Pakistan’s biometric identification system into the social life of Pashtun migrants in Islamabad. Specifically, I will examine how an identity card comes to be “blocked”, and the implications of this phenomena on questions of citizenship, mobility and belonging. I approach NADRA by asking how it not only communicates meaning about identity but produces identity through documentary functions and the management of information. This allows us to rethink national identity and citizenship, not as prefigured legal categories, but actively produced in and through technological and bureaucratic processes. There are many dimensions to how NADRA shapes citizenship and Pashtun identity within an urban context, but in the wake of evictions at the largest Pashtun squatter settlement in Islamabad, this paper is concerned with NADRA’s impact on urban migrants, such as through the process of verifying the address printed on the card. Hence, I hope to explore the tension between place, as space of inhabitation if not belonging, and the virtual form generated in encoding these spaces into databases in the NADRA system. Thus, this paper will demonstrate how recognition within NADRA’s databases impacts the ability of some citizens to lay claim to cities and make home in an increasingly securitized urban landscape.



Full paper — Hashmi 2017 (DOCX)

Slideshow — Hashmi 2017 slides (PDF)

My paper attempted to highlight both how new technologies of governance, such as NADRA’s use of biometrics and algorithms, inform how we understand citizenship as well as ethnic and urban identities. In addition, I hoped to show how the postcolonial Pakistani state’s preoccupation with forms of identity that should be irrelevant with biometrics, like kinship and where somebody calls home, in fact shape these new technologies of identification and securitization. While there is a rich body of literature on the implications of surveillance for individual privacy and social sorting– particularly in the Euro-American context, my research aims to better understand how surveillance itself is shaped by not necessarily individuals but social relations and collective or group memberships of surveillance subjects. While some of this may seem obscure or overly specific, I do believe that it contains significant elements, both specific to Pakistan and generalizable to other contexts, that can be taught in a K-12 classroom.

Using an inquiry based format centered on a core question such as “how does surveillance technology affect citizenship?” and then building in related questions such as “how does it impact life in the city?” and finally getting to question “what does citizenship mean for different groups?”. In the context of a middle school or high school classroom – specifically within a social studies module on contemporary global topics, borders, migration, or civic life and government – it would be important to develop background knowledge and here visual materials would be helpful. Presenting students with primary sources in the form of research materials such as relevant interviews with Pashtun migrants will not only allow them to answer these core questions, but will also familiarize them with less known and certainly less understood research methods such as ethnography. Research materials such as interviews can be presented in their visual format, as well as transcribed and turned into worksheets with specific questions that will allow students to respond to the central question using evidence from these sources.