When Databases Get the Family Definition

“Wrong: Unmarried Mother” flashed on the computer screen as 30-year-old Riz began the process of renewing his Pakistani Computerized National ID Card (CNIC), a compulsory identification document that acts like a social security number, driver’s license, and passport all rolled into one. Riz’s parents have been married for 31 years, but the database disagrees; there is no way to proceed without this validation check. Every visit to the registration office ends with an official saying, “Sorry, sir, the computer won’t allow this.”

Without a renewed CNIC, Riz would not even be able to buy a bus ticket. In Pakistan, access to sectors and services as diverse as telecom, banking, health records, social welfare, voting, and employment are all done with a verified National Database and Registration record. Authority (NADRA).

The problem with validating Riz’s identity is not due to a glitch in the system. The requirement to have two married parents, however, is an example of social judgments encoded within the design of Pakistan’s digital ID database. It is learned that, to avoid taking her husband’s surname, Riz’s mother never updated her marital status with NADRA. In analogue Pakistan in the early 1990s, he went through without issue. Thirty years later, social expectations are already in the databases, and Riz can’t access basic services unless a question about his mother’s marital status comes back “TRUE.”

Riz’s experience tells the bigger story of how Pakistan chose the structure of its digital ID system. The system places each individual within a comprehensive digital family tree. Digital homes are created with pre-encoded, social and legally approved relationships, and can be connected to other homes through similar social and legally approved relationships. Each registered individual is required to prove blood relationship or marriage with another certified Pakistani citizen. Marriages (approved by the state) create a link between the two households, and children (only through marriage) create an ongoing link in the genealogies of the two households.

Pakistan’s experience in creating databases encoding kinship reveals important lessons about the complexity of building a digital ID system. Database design is not just computational. At each step, social, political, and technical decisions come together.

In 1973, Pakistan recently from the war of independence; two years ago, East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Pakistan, which has suffered a blow to its legitimacy, now wants to “a complete statistical database of the people of this country.” Parliament created an agency responsible for providing each citizen with a state-issued ID, conducting statistical analysis of the population, and establishing rules around the identification of citizens.

Who is considered a citizen is a politically charged question for any country, but especially for a country with complex immigration relations. After the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan, many hundreds of thousands of individuals born in Pakistan -granted land emigrated to India, and vice versa. Citizenship rules have become a difficult dance between ensuring that the descendants of these Pakistani migrants receive citizenship while not preceding for the later waves of migrants to claim the state. So citizenship is granted to those born in Pakistan after 1951, and to the descendants of those who immigrated to Pakistan. ago 1951. (This cut-off date was later changed to 1971 to accommodate the wave of migration after Bangladesh’s independence.) As Pakistan faced more waves of migration, the largest of them from Afghanistan, the rules for citizenship and recognition are combined. Evidence of identity, such as citizenship, is tied to family and lineage.

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