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Identity and Identification in Brazil

January 21, 2009

My host and colleague here at PUCPR, Rodrigo Firmino, and I are working on a small bit of research and a paper for The Second Multidisciplinary Workshop on Identity in the Information Society (IDIS 09), at the the London School of Economics, on June 9th this year.

Our paper is based around a case of identity theft, which is endemic in Brazil, which we use to open up the laws, practices and technologies of identification here. One thing that is already clear is that Brazil is a highly bureaucratic state – for example, the forms you need to fill in just to get a mobile phone are incredible in their detail – yet the forms of identification which one needs for every transaction with the state and many private organisations too, are highly insecure.

One example is that every personal cheque has printed on it not only the usual information (bank name and address, bank sort code, account holder name and account number), but also has the 11-digit Cadastro de Pessoas Fisicas (CPF) (a taxpayer’s card) number and the 9-digit Registro Geral (RG) (the national ID card) number. This must be a utter joy to fraudsters and identity thieves!

What’s more, all these are not just numbers in a database somewhere but physical documents in their own right, and on each there is a lot of this cross-identification: the CPF card also has the name and date of birth, the CPF number is ubiquitous, appearing also on the RG card and the driving licence. The latter has its own 11-digit registration number, but also has the RG number, name, and place and date of birth. What is even more interesting is that the RG card not only contains a photo and a thumbprint (the state database contains prints of all 10 fingers and thumbs), but also the names of both parents. This means it can be related more easily to the birth certificate. It reminds me a little of the Japanese system which still prioritises the family above the individual in some ways, but there is no actual equivalent of the koseki, the Japanese family register.

Now, in the name of security and “para integrar os bancos de dados de diversos órgãos dos sistemas de identificação do Brasil” (to inegrate the databases of the diverse organisations of identification systems in Brazil), the Ministry of Justice is proposing to merge some of these – the RG, CPF, Driving Licence and Electoria Regisirtation, into a new, smart, Registro de Identidade Civil (RIC) card based on a unique number. Whilst this will have many of the same problems as new smart ID systems everywhere else, at the very least it might stop Brazilian citizens carrying around multiple documents that list almost everything thieves and fraudsters need and can access without any sophisticated equipment. The process is due to start now, and run until 2017, so we will be taking a look at this as it proceeds.

I’ll put some pictures up with explanations later today…

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