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Birth registration: the fundamental step and cornerstone of identity management: revolutionary change urgently needed

12 June 2017

A defective birth registration system impairs the integrity of the identity management system of the nation and related identity documents, not to mention the social cost involved in counteractions. Ir. Dr Raymond Wong highlights the weakest links and explains why reform is required.

The new life
Birth denotes one more person in the global population.

Birth registration and certificate
To mark this memorable, yet important event and for practical reasons, normally a birth certificate will be issued in accordance with the current law where the birth is taking place.  There are various formats of birth certificate but are still by and large in paper format. 

Figure 1 - sample birth certificates      

Figure 1: copies of birth certificates (from internet)

The present systems are “trust” systems relying on self-compliance of the parents.  Personal details of the newborn recorded are essentially the sex, date of birth, parents’ details, place of birth, or a name; without any biological or scientific information about the unique personal characteristics of the newborn. 

The weakest link
The birth certificate becomes the key breeder document for the newborn in the rest of the life.  All other identity documents will be issued based on this piece of paper.  The normal practice nowadays is to establish the identity of the infant or child in subsequent years by means of secondary evidence, i.e. documents with a photograph of the child taken several years after the birth such as school records, religious documents, and the like.  

A report in US pointed out this alarming problem. (1)   “It may be getting harder to sneak into the United States, but once you’ve arrived, getting fake documents in Florida is a piece of cake.  Counterfeit, altered or stolen birth certificates coming from Puerto Rico are the Holy Grail to Florida’s undocumented.  With a phony birth certificate you can live the American dream.  You can also enroll in school, land a job and get a driver’s license.”

From the internet one can easily find reported cases of birth certificate frauds elsewhere, not to mention other problems like switching of babies. 

Figure 2

Figure 2: report on switching of newborn at hospital

More alarmingly, there is high percentage of unregistered births around the globe:

  • According to UNICEF, in India, “an estimated 26 million births ….. take place in the country every year. Each year about 42% of births go unregistered, which is about 10 million births. … Registration level in the rural areas is lower when compared to the urban areas.”  (2)  In Indonesia, 60 per cent of children under five years are not officially registered.  (3)
  • The World Bank in 2015 announced, “Globally, an estimated 1.5 billion people are unable to prove their official identity.  This includes almost 170 million children under the age of five years. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest percentage of its population (around 37%) without a form of legal identification, as well as the highest rate of unregistered births (43% of 0-4 age group).” (4)

Given all these known problems, a birth registration record alone, even properly maintained and compliant with procedural requirements, may not guarantee that the record will not or cannot be exploited for identity fraud.  The fatal problem is that if the birth record is already incorrect or untrue at the very beginning (at source), all subsequent personal records will be totally unreliable.  A defective birth registration system impairs the integrity of the identity management system of the nation and related identity documents, not to mention the social cost involved in counteractions. 

International requirements
The present birth registration systems around the world are mostly not compliant with the international requirement:

(i)               International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 24 (2):

Every child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have a name.

(ii)             Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, Article 7 (1):

The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name,…….

Urgent reform required
The present registration systems far lag behind the advancement of technologies and the beat of the world.  Efforts should be made to ensure that the registration is made immediately after the birth by means of contemporary and scientific methodology.  

Most of the biometrics applications nowadays mainly target for adults and teenagers, which form the majority group of users.  Little progress has been made for birth registration, particularly for the quick and accurate verification / identification of newborns and babies.

DNA profiling is already widely adopted in criminal investigation and accepted as valid evidence in court, and for testifying of parentchild relationship, albeit on voluntary basis. 

Birth registration can be revolutionised by collecting DNA sample from the newborn immediately upon the birth in accordance with a set of stringent procedures:

  • With prior consent of the parent, sample of DNA, e.g. drop of blood, saliva, a tiny bit of hair, or a small portion of the umbilical cord depending on the contemporary scientific requirement will be collected from the newborn and the mother immediately after the delivery. 
  • The samples will be placed forthwith into a pre-arranged container, sealed and signed by the mother and attending medical practitioner or attendant.  
  • Designated laboratory will conduct basic testing and compile a simple identity report (a genetic fingerprint) just suffice to identify the data subject in the rest of the life cycle.  Any hidden genetic or special disease so observed can be attended for immediate remedial action.  The genetic fingerprint of the newborn is digitally encrypted and securely stored in the birth registration records maintained by relevant authorities.  The record is only accessible by the data subject, parents and relevant authorities on special condition and permission by the data subject in accordance with the law.  A birth certificate will accordingly be issued.
  • The government or the hospital can make useful analysis and statistics of the DNA samples (anonymous for privacy protection) for the betterment of genetic disease prevention or other useful purposes, provided all social, ethical, religious and privacy protective measures are fully complied with.
  • This can be initially a voluntary system and free of charge though eventually it will be a universal system for all newborns.

(1)  Toledo, M. (2014) Those with fake birth certificates find it’s easy to live the American dream, 23 June 2014, Florida Watchdog




 Dr Raymond Wong will also be addressing this subject at the Biometrics Congress in London on 1-2 November 2017. 

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