Confusing biometric ID experiences at a young age: voices from Thailand (5/5 blogs on youth & ID for UNICEF)

Hélène Smertnik and Savita Bailur

This blog is one of five blogs from our work on children and the tension between identification and identity in a digital age. Other blogs include:

  • Identification and identity for children in a digital age
  • Identification, identity and sexuality for youth in Brazil
  • Refugee identification and identity for children in Lebanon
  • Financial inclusion, identification and identity for children in Kenya

At Caribou Digital, with the support of UNICEF, we undertook a multi-country research study to understand the interplay and challenges between identification, identity, and digital ID for children in their journey to adulthood, from 0 to 18. What tensions appear between the ID credentials (ID) one owns, the way one is identified (identification), and the way one identifies oneself (identity) during this formative period?

To do so, we conducted fieldwork in four countries: Kenya, Brazil, Lebanon, and Thailand. Each country surfaced a different theme and ID challenges: in Brazil, we saw tension between identification and gender/sexual identity; in Kenya we saw the consequences of early and informal financial inclusion due to the high penetration of mobile money; and in Lebanon, tensions in the identity-making of refugee children.

In Thailand we focused on the experience of acquiring identification credentials at a young age, especially when the credentials are biometric.

The graphic below maps a Thai child’s accumulation of ID credentials as well as personal data, from childhood to adulthood. ID credentials are represented by the solid grey blocks, divided by development age ranges. These credentials are both legal, such as a birth certificate, and non-legal, such a Facebook account. The floating dots illustrate the child’s growing amount of personally identifiable data (PII) over time (e.g. a date of birth, a password, or a Google search). By the time a child reaches 18, a huge amount of PII is available on them.

Identification, identity, and digital ID in Thailand for children between 0 and 18

Visual developed with UNICEF

In 2005, the government of Thailand decided to shift from a paper-based ID to a biometric smart ID; in 2011, this was followed by a change in the age to obtain the national ID from 15 to 7. These policies intend to improve access to essential services as well as curb identity theft by creating one unique smart card from a young age.

Note that in this blog we focus on the topic of children with Thai citizenship. Non-citizens have additional challenges. We spoke to a few Thai Yai (non-Thai) children and their families, who raised concerns of not being able to access services, particularly higher-level schooling resulting in potential unemployment because of a lack of ID. However, we did not explore this in-depth, and this is a topic that deserves much deeper discussion in Thailand. (We do address the challenges of refugees, identification, and identity in our blog on Lebanon [link].)

While there have been discussions in Thailand around the issues of seven-year-olds obtaining an ID (the article referenced is in Thai but discusses the importance of photo identification, something a birth certificate lacks), the larger discussion revolves around the biometric capture. Research on the topic of biometric ID enrollment for children globally often focuses on benefits for governments, technical aspects, (e.g. the recognition accuracy of children’s biometric data), or privacy issues (e.g. risk of hacking of stored data). A recent study by UNICEF (July 2019) provides comprehensive guidance for actors looking at implementing biometric authentication projects for children. While a large part of the study looks at the technical and legal aspects of implementation, it also warns against the risks specific to children as well as the question of user acceptance.

We conducted this qualitative study over two weeks, at the end of 2018 — interviewing over 80 children, youth, caregivers, and frontline workers (e.g. medical staff and school teachers) in and around Chiang Mai — to further explore user acceptance by looking at ID enrollment through the eyes of youth. It was preceded by a short, online U-Report survey conducted by UNICEF Thailand to collect preliminary information on youth’s experiences and opinions around identification and biometrics. During our fieldwork, we focused on Chiang Mai (Thailand’s second-biggest city) and its surrounding areas. We interviewed a total of 100 respondents through focus groups and interviews. These included accompanied children (11 to 14), youth (15 to 20), teachers, nurses, parents, and caregivers as well as a few experts and ID practitioners.

At seven years old, children are asked to obtain identification credentials without having the ability to fully understand the meaning of it

Lawan (pseudonym), turned seven a few months ago and had just recently gone with her mother to register for her National Identity card (NID). According to her mother (Lawan was too shy to tell us), Lawan saw the NID as a toy: “all her friends at school had it and so she wanted one as soon as she could to not feel left out.”

While Lawan’s mother was happy about her daughter’s enthusiasm, she noted the difficulty of getting an ID at seven: “I would’ve preferred for her to do it at 15, as in the past. The child is too young to understand and it is difficult to explain what the NID is.”

Sarah, a 16-year-old adolescent, also highlighted the issue of not understanding the value of the NID when so young. She remembers that it was just something that needed to be done. “It is only when I passed my first school exam (at 13), requiring my ID, that I realised that this is an important document. My parents still keep my ID today.”

Getting a biometric ID at a young age: intimidating and confusing

Several adolescents we spoke with recalled uncomfortable experiences when getting their biometric ID. Being so young and without a full understanding of what the NID is, or what the process entailed, meant that when errors occurred or authentication failed they would take it as a personal matter, as Waen’s quote illustrates:

“The first time the officials could not see [read] my fingerprint on the machine. I thought something was wrong with me and the agent didn’t help, he just told my parents we would need to come back. I was worried.” — Waen, 14 year old

In addition to the uncertainty it can create for young children, the process of collecting data itself was sometimes remembered as quite intimidating, as Vanida, now 13 years old, explained: “They told me not to smile and not to move. I remember I was a bit nervous when they took my photo…the place felt like a prison.”

The fact that children did not know the agents collecting their biometric data added to their discomfort: “We go do the biometric registration with our parents or our teachers, but still we don’t know the people who do the collection. It would be better if it was our teachers.” — Aroon 12-year-old male student

Among the different methods of biometric identification in Thailand, most of the children and adolescents interviewed preferred having fingerprints taken, followed by photographs, and lastly iris scans, which felt the most invasive. Respondents found the fingerprint scanning was the easiest method as they had already done it for school activities. Similarly, UNICEF’s evaluation of user acceptance of biometric data suggests that facial recognition and fingerprint methods were the most acceptable while iris scan was the least acceptable. In addition, a short online U-Report survey was conducted by UNICEF Thailand for this research. The results, out of a total of 71 responses indicated that, overall, adolescent girls (15 to 20 years old) felt less comfortable with biometric data collection than boys.

Therefore, looking at user acceptance before looking at efficiency is recommended. In the case of iris scans, UNICEF’s report suggests it is a highly accurate method of identification but considering its low acceptance by children, shouldn’t be encouraged at that age.

Youth expressed the desire for more control over the ID process

“To give your biometric information, which will stay with the government for the rest of your life, you should be the one who decides what information you give. With Facebook, I decide which picture goes up, I decide which information I give. I would like to be able to decide more when it comes to government information.” — Phueng, 18-year-old female student

Group of 18 to 20 year old students at Chiang Mai University. Credit: T. Rawanghet.

When asking youth to compare the government’s ID procedures and requirements with social media registration and use, especially the ability to choose what information they post online, youth brought up the issue of consent. Older teen respondents understood that the government collected their personal data for security purposes (both the U-report responses and the interviews highlighted this). Still, youth regularly raised “asking for consent” and “providing clear information on the reasons for biometric data collection” as ways to give youth a sense of ownership over their ID rather than just a document for the government to keep track of its citizens.

“When I use my fingerprints on my phone, I know they stay on my phone and I own it. But if I use the data at my workplace, to enter the building, I don’t own the data anymore. Same with the government, they put my information somewhere and I don’t have access.” — 19-year-old student

Takeaways

While acquiring the NID at seven enables more seamless procedures for the government (e.g. usage of one document from an early age instead of the accumulation over time of different documents providing access to different services as portrayed in the graph above), the experiences of children and youth highlights the nervousness some young recipients of ID feel; this should not be underestimated.

Accordingly, here are a few recommendations for key stakeholders to ensure adoption of ID by children is both efficient and makes sense to, rather than confuses, children:

  • The Government, when implementing ID enrollment at a young age, should ensure that the process is as easy as possible for parents and children, that both are adequately informed, and that the process takes into account the young age of the citizens. The government should also consider the most comfortable methods of capturing biometric information on children.
  • Frontline workers, such as schools or maternity clinics, have a key role to play in ensuring that the procedures are done in a way that is understood and adapted to children. Allowing adults to be close to their children, taking the time to explain what is being done and giving information at the end of the process are all important parts of the process which appear to be overlooked.
  • Parents and caregivers need to be well informed as the process relies heavily on them. It is key to involve them and ensure that they are able to inform their children adequately. This is undoubtedly the same as all other bureaucratic procedures, but there is an additional level of vulnerability for both parent and child when biometrics are being captured and children are being handled by strangers.

Acknowledgements

We were particularly aware of the complexity of talking about ID with children and youth and underwent a comprehensive UNICEF Ethics Board review prior to beginning fieldwork. We also made sure to create a friendly, non-intimidating atmosphere with the usual contract of anonymity. We were very grateful for the time and attention that children, youth, families and officials gave us.

We would like to sincerely thank UNICEF Thailand for their support during their field research, in particular Jakub Lambrych for his drive during the research as well as Ploycarat Nana’s support in conducting the U-Report Survey. Finally, our sincere thanks to our Research Assistant, Thanatporn Rawanghet, for her dedication, coordinating the field research, recruiting respondents, interpreting and leading interviews and focus groups, transcribing them over the two weeks and her great support with analysising the research findings.

In addition to the above, we are very grateful to Jonathan Donner (Caribou Digital) and the UNICEF team for feedback. These blogs represent our views and not those of UNICEF.

Author: Savita Bailur

I’m a researcher in digital development. Currently a Research Director at Caribou Digital and Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. Previous experience includes USAID, World Bank, Commonwealth Secretariat, World Wide Web Foundation, mySociety, Microsoft Research India and University of Manchester (lectureship).

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