Nigeria's Using a Biometric ID Card That Doubles As a Debit Card

Make all the "Dear Friend" email scam jokes that you want—Nigeria now has one of the most sophisticated government-issued ID systems in the world. A new nationwide card that rolls out this week collects biometric information to prevent fraud and includes a debit card feature backed by MasterCard.

The National eID card, which was officially launched over the weekend by president Goodluck Jonathan, is in many ways the equivalent of an American drivers' license, with name, age, and fingerprints collected as part of the application process. (Nigeria is also doing an iris scan, which some states do.) The cards will serve as the primary identity verification system for government services and international travel for everyone over 16.

But unlike our drivers' licenses, Nigeria's card can also be used anywhere MasterCard is accepted as a method of payment. This is perhaps the most progressive part of the program and would provide the most social impact: Only about 30 percent of the country's citizens currently have bank accounts. This card would instantly allow the other 70 percent of Nigeria's population to save and spend money in the same way as that small group.

Of course, MasterCard knows this and that's why they're involved: They're hoping to get some new customers out of the deal. It's not unlike a similar partnership that Google has entered into with Kenya's government that gathers personal information as part of an electronic public transport system (which will eventually allow users to charge other goods on their cards as well).

The plan is to require all citizens to have the card by 2019, which is the year that Nigerians will need the cards to be able to vote. Fraud is still a concern, and should be for such a large endeavor, but it's a small risk compared to the importance of providing equal access to the global economy in an increasingly cash-less world. [BBC]