Next Generation Identification in Pakistan

By Bytes for All, Pakistan

 Pakistan faces some of the most unique socio-economic and developmental challenges in the world. A developing country with a population of around 180 million people and the frontline state in the “war on terror,” Pakistan is suffering acutely as the war takes its toll on all aspects of its development. Due to the worsening law and order situation, and in the name of national security, a huge population is deprived of its basic rights. Censorship and surveillance in the name of religion and national security is on the rise along with the government’s quest to build huge databases of citizens without any legal protection.

In an environment of escalating militancy and consequent violence in Pakistan, these complexities and contradictions severely undermine capacities for good governance, improved human rights and the restoration of order in the country.

Several governments around the world have large plans and grandiose ambitions to create a national DNA database. The desire of DNA profiling of all its citizens is far stronger in developing countries and authoritarian regimes like Pakistan. The government in Pakistan is also planning to develop a national database containing DNA profiles of all its citizens.1 This DNA database would then be linked to the world’s largest centralized biometric citizen database of around 90 million individual records: NADRA2 (National Database and Registration Authority) database also termed as Next Generation Identification (NGI).3

The idea behind the creation of a DNA database in Pakistan is to link it with the existing biometric based computerized national identity card system to track down criminals and terrorists. This database has lofty plans, such as identifying suicide bombers as well as the victims of accidents, man-made and natural disasters and military conflicts.

A meeting of civilian and military law enforcement agencies have already decided that NADRA would form and maintain a database on terrorists.4 NADRA would develop a biometric database of terrorists and criminals and make a tree of their family members available to law enforcement agencies.

During the recent terrorists attack on the Pakistan Naval Shipping (PNS) Mehran Base5 in Karachi, DNA tests were conducted in order to identify the terrorists. These samples were also matched with the NADRA database, which revealed that these terrorists were not registered Pakistanis.6 NADRA employed sophisticated biometric and facial recognition systems to attempt to identify the terrorists, but the system so far has not been successful in most such cases.

Pakistan has recently established the world’s second largest forensic science laboratory in Lahore to counter terrorism and help police in investigations of criminal cases.7 This laboratory will provide services in 14 forensic disciplines, including toxicology, forensic photography, narcotics, trace chemistry, DNA and serology, crime scene investigation, firearms and tool marks, death scene investigation, questioned documents, computer forensics, latent prints, polygraph, pathology and audiovisual. The government is also seeking the support of international development partners in further strengthening of the laboratory.

DNA forensics involve complex statistical calculations and require extremely careful handling to prevent errors; sample contamination and other problems have been well documented. While any two genetic profiles can be matched with a high degree of certainty, large forensic database scans have led to perplexing results. Take, for example, a 2005 examination of Arizona’s criminal database. The entire enterprise of DNA databases is based on the idea that no two people share the same profile. But Arizona’s database of 65,000-plus entries was shown to have more than 100 profiles that were similar enough for many experts to consider them a “match.” In separate studies, it has been reported that Illinois’ and Maryland’s databases had hundreds of seemingly unique genetic profiles matching one another. This is a phenomenon that suggests people convicted solely on evidence from DNA databases may have profiles that coincidentally match the real perpetrators’, leading innocent people to be incarcerated.8

The human rights problems of universal databases are hard to grasp for some segments of society. Here’s an example that should give anyone pause. Adultery is haram in Islam and a criminal offence in Pakistan; the penalties can range from public flogging to death by stoning. A universal database would instantly prove (or appear to prove) both paternity and non-paternity for a family tree. While the Pakistani government argues that its planned database would not be used to violate any human rights or privacy of citizens, the temptation will always be there. Ultimately abuse of that knowledge seems almost inevitable once it gets into law enforcement agencies’ hands. In addition, there is absolutely no legal protection for citizens in Pakistan to counter the hegemony of any law enforcing agencies.

The existing NADRA database holds name, gender, race, address, identity number, fingerprints, facial biometric details, photos, as well as travel details including border entries and exits. This next generation identity database is not only designed to allow the collection and storage of these presently used identification metrics, it is also built to accommodate identifiers that are likely to become more common in the future, which easily could include individuals’ DNA profiles.

NADRA also has very advanced photo storage and facial recognition capabilities that enables an increased ability to locate potentially related photos (and other records associated with the photos) that might not otherwise be discovered. Linking a DNA database with such a powerful system would eventually make it much easier to locate and track individuals across many aspects of their personal lives, from phone calls to traveling patterns.

With the introduction of the planned DNA database, Pakistan will enter into a new age of high tech monitoring and surveillance of its citizens. However, a society which imposes such massive surveillance upon its citizens is not, in principle, free.


The individual authors requested anonymity for reasons of personal safety.


2. National Database Registration Authority
3. Pakistan Has World’s Largest Biometric Citizen Database
4. Govt planning to have citizens’ DNA database

© 2014 Forensic Genetics Policy Initiative