Economics of Official Fake IDs (and weird science: electrostatic walls)

Uganda’s government has utterly failed at bringing in a national ID program. However, the legal requirement for Ugandans to register their SIM cards using “national” IDs means there’s lots of demand on the street. What’s an average dirt-poor citizen do? Made their own “national ID,” of course.

Shops and street vendors design their own “citizen” or “local resident” IDs, and sell them to all comers. The buyer then takes his newly-minted ID to the local council office — along with a friend who can testify that the man is indeed a resident of the area that he claims to be — and pays a fee. The official stamps the ID as “valid,” and lo! it’s good enough.

Somehow — despite, or perhaps because of its gaping security flaws* — this process strikes me as remarkably civilized.

* a few good security holes being a decent defense against privacy intrusion in a pinch

In reality, it primarily serves to massively reduce the government’s ID development and production costs, while transferring all the security from the ID to the local council’s stamp on it. Nobody cares whether the ID is authentic. What matters is the authenticity of the stamp.

From a security perspective, this is terrible: it’s much easier to prevent corruption in the multi-stage process of producing a complex ID. You can check at every step whether or not the ID in the pipeline is actually supposed to be made.

On the other hand, it raises the question… do we really need watertight personal identification?

The justifications given for a Ugandan national identity card are elections, financial institutions, and travel. Is it possible to meet the security requirements of these use cases without ironclad ID?

Weird science: The craziest thing I read all day. An “invisible wall” capable of stopping a man in his tracks, formed by excessive electrostatic charge. Physics types — is the given explanation (a “charged sheath vortex” caused by mutual attraction between parallel traveling charges) accurate?

” The multiple delays in the national ID project have left people with no alternatives save for exploiting alternatives and creating their own IDs-labeling them as “Citizens” identifications. One of the booming businesses on the streets of Kampala, taxi parks and at local council offices across the country is making, selling and issuing IDs.

A week-long investigation around Kampala showed that these IDs are of two types. One type bears the word ‘Resident’ on the cover while another brand bears the word ‘Citizen’ on the cover. They are mainly made at Nasser and Nkrumah roads in Kampala.

Several centres along these Streets are famous for originating all sorts of fake documents that include, among others, academic certificates ranging from bachelor’s degrees, diplomas and of recent PhDs. The wholesale price range for ‘’Citizen” and “Resident” IDs are between Shs300 and Shs1, 000.

How does this work?

After buying the card from Nasser Road or any other outlet, you get a passport photo and take it to a local council official who at between Shs3,000 and Shs20,000 approves and stamps it to confirm that you are a citizen of Uganda or a resident of a given area.

One John Muyomba, a resident of Kasubi, tells this newspaper that he acquired a citizens ID from his local chairman a year ago and it has been doing wonders for him following the expiry of his university ID. “I paid Shs5,000 and took two passport size photos. I presented a friend at the LC office as a referee and got the ID

At around 2600 shillings to the USD, we are looking at from $1 to $4 for the card, and $12 to $80 or so for the certification. Now divide those numbers by the average daily wage — about $1 — to get a view as to their purchasing-power-parity cost.

Prone to abuse
For one to get this acquired ID stamp, all they need is a person to recommend them to an LC leader that he/she is a resident of an area. “We always ask the person seeking our approval to come with a resident of the area to prove that they are Ugandans or resident of that area,” says Bright Kashaka, an LC chairperson in Kisenyi, a Kampala suburb.

When this reporter visited a local council office in an area he neither works from nor resides, he was told by the people he found at the office to pay Shs10, 000 and present a passport photo after which he would have one ID issued. From this discovery, it became clear that you only need to have money and passport size photos to a citizen or resident ID.

What’s going on here is that the market for documents has stepped in to provide the physical carrier, and the market for local councils has stepped forth to provide the certification. This seems like an efficient solution, especially when we factor in the experience of government-led production experiments.

Curiously, it also makes the case that an ID of any form is a good thing, as shown by the thriving market, evidencing demand from somewhere.

“…It is this ID that I used to register my Sim card and to get an account at one of the banks,” says Muyomba. While, these IDs seem to be serving different purposes, for example, local identification and Sim card registration, among others, the ease at which they are acquired, stamped and issued is worrying.”

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