In general, Salon Participants noted the potential positives of digital ID, such as improved access to services, better service delivery, accountability, and better tracking of beneficiaries. However, they shared concerns about potential negative impacts, such as surveillance and discrimination, disregard for human rights and privacy, lack of trust in government and others running digital ID systems, harm to marginalized communities, lack of policy and ethical frameworks, complexities of digital ID systems and their associated technological requirements, and low capacity within NGOs to protect data and to deal with unintended consequences.
What do we mean by digital identity (digital ID)?
Arriving at a basic definition of digital ID is difficult due to its interrelated aspects. To begin with: What is identity? A social identity arises from a deep sense of who we are and where we come from. A person’s social identity is a critical part of how they experience an ID system. Analog ID systems have been around for a very long time and digitized versions build on them.
The three categories below (developed by Omidyar) are used by some to differentiate among types of ID systems:
- Issued ID includes state or national issued identification like birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and systems such as India’s biometric ID system (Aadhar), built on existing analog models of ID systems and controlled by institutions.
- De facto ID is an emerging category of ID that is formed through data trails that people leave behind when using digital devices, including credit scoring based on mobile phone use or social media use. De facto ID is somewhat outside of an individual’s control, as it is often based on analysis of passive data for which individuals have not given consent to collect or use in this way. De facto ID also includes situations where refugees are tracked via cellphone data records (CDRs). De facto ID is a new and complex way of being identified and categorized.
- Self-asserted ID is linked to the decentralization of ID systems. It is based on the possession of forms of ID that prove who we are that we manage ourselves. A related term is self-managed ID, which recognizes that there is no ID that is “self-asserted” because our identity is relational and always relies on others recognizing us as who we are and who we believe ourselves to be.
As re-identification technologies are becoming more and more sophisticated, the line between de-facto and official, issued IDs is blurring, noted one participant. Others said they prefer using a broad umbrella term “Identity in the Digital Age” to cover the various angles.
Who is digital ID benefiting?
Salon Participants tended to think that digital ID is mainly of interest to institutions. Most IDs are developed, designed, managed, and issued by institutions. Thus the interests baked into the design of an ID system are theirs. Institutions tend to be excited about digital ID systems because they are interoperable, and helps them with beneficiary management, financial records, entry/exit across borders and the like.
This very interoperability, however, is what raises privacy, vulnerability, and data protection issues. Some of the most cutting-edge Digital ID systems are being tested on some of the most vulnerable populations in the world: refugees in Jordan, Uganda, Lebanon, and Myanmar. These digital ID systems have created massive databases for analysis, e.g., the UNHCR’s Progress data base has 80 million records.
This brings with it a huge responsibility to protect. It also raises questions about the “one ID system to rule them all” idea. On the one hand, a single system can offer managerial control, reduce fraud, and improve tracking. Yet, as one person said, “what a horrifying prospect that an institution can have this much control! Should we instead be supporting one thousand ID systems to bloom?”
Can we trust institutions and governments to manage digital ID Systems?
One of the institutions positioning itself as the leader in Digital ID is the World Food Program (WFP). As one participant highlighted, this is an agency that has come under strong criticism for its partnership with Palantir and a lack of transparency around where data goes and who can access it. Seismic downstream effects that affect trust in the entire sector can be generated these kinds of partnerships. “This has caused a lot of angst in the sector. The WFP wants to have the single system to rule them all, whereas many of us would rather see an interoperable ecosystem.” Some organizations consider their large-scale systems to have more rigorous privacy, security, and informed consent measures than the WFP’s SCOPE system.
Trust is a critical component of a Digital ID system. The Estonian model, for example, offers visibility into which state departments are accessing a person’s data and when, which builds citizen’s trust in the system. Some Salon participants expressed concern over their own country governments running a Digital ID system. “In my country, we don’t trust institutions because we have a failed state,” said one person, “so people would never want the government to have their information in that way.” Another person said that in his country, the government is known for its corruption, and the idea that the government could manage an ID system with any kind of data integrity was laughable. “If these systems are not monitored or governed properly, they can be used to target certain segments of the population for outright repression. People do want greater financial inclusion, for example, but these ID systems can be easily weaponized and used against us.”
Fear and mistrust in digital ID systems is not universal, however. One Salon participant said that their research in Indonesia found that a digital ID was seen to be part of being a “good citizen,” even if local government was not entirely trusted. A Salon participant from China reported that in her experience, the digital ID system there has not been questioned much by citizens. Rather, it is seen as a convenient way for people to learn about new government policies and to carry out essential transactions more quickly.
What about data integrity and redress?
One big challenge with digital ID systems as they are currently managed is that there is very little attention to redress. “How do you fix errors in information? Where are the complaints mechanisms?” asked one participant. “We think of digital systems as being really flexible, but they are really hard to clean out,” said another. “You get all these faulty data crumbs that stick around. And they seem so far removed from the user. How do people get data errors fixed? No one cares about the integrity of the system. No one cares but you if your ID information is not correct. There is really very little incentive to address discrepancies and provide redress mechanisms.”
Another challenge is the integrity of the data that goes into the system. In some countries, people go back to their villages to get a birth certificate, at point at which data integrity can suffer due to faulty information or bribes, among other things. In one case, researchers spoke to a woman who changed her religion on her birth certificate thinking it would save her from discrimination when she moved to a new town. In another case, the village chief made a woman change her name to a Muslim name on her birth certificate because the village was majority Muslim.” There are power dynamics at the local level that can challenge the integrity of the ID system.
Do digital ID systems improve the lives of women and children?
There is a long-standing issue in many parts of the world with children not having a birth certificate, said one Salon discussant. “If you don’t have a legal ID, technically you don’t exist, so that first credential is really important.” As could probably be expected, however, fewer females than males have legal ID.
In a three-country research project, the men interviewed thought that women do not need ID as much as men did. However, when talking with women it was clear that they are the ones who are dealing with hospitals and schools and other institutions who require ID. The study found that In Bangladesh, when women did have ID, it was commonly held and controlled by their husbands. In one case study, a woman wanted to sign up as a cook for an online cooking service, but she needed an ID to do so. She had to ask her husband for the ID, explain what she needed it for, and get his permission in order to join the cooking service. In another, a woman wanted to provide beauty care services through an online app. She needed to produce her national ID and two photos to join up with the app and to create a bKash mobile money account. Her husband did not want her to have a bKash account, so she had to provide his account details, meaning that all of her earnings went to her husband (see more here on how ID helps women access work). In India, a woman wanted to escape her husband, so she moved from the countryside to Bangalore to work as a maid. Her in-laws retained all of her ID, and so she had to rely on her brother to set up everything for her in Bangalore.
Another Salon participant explained that in India also, micro-finance institutions had imposed a regulation that when a woman registered to be part of a project, she had to provide the name of a male member to qualify her identity. When it was time to repay the loan or if a woman missed a payment, her brother or husband would then receive a text about it. The question is how to create trust-based systems that do not reinforce patriarchal values and where individuals are clear about and have control over how information is shared?
“ID is embedded in your relationships and networks,” it was explained. “It creates a new set of dependencies and problems that we need to consider.” In order to understand the nuances in how ID and digital ID are impacting people, we need more of these micro-level stories. “What is actually happening? What does it mean when you become more identifiable?”
Is it OK to use digital ID systems for social control and social accountability?
The Chinese social credit system, according to one Salon participant, includes a social control function. “If you have not repaid a loan, you are banned from purchasing a first-class air ticket or from checking into expensive hotels.” An application used In Nairobi called Tala also includes a social accountability function, explained another participant. “Tala is a social credit scoring app that gives small loans. You download an app with all your contacts, and it works out via algorithms if you are credit-worthy. If you are, you can get a small loan. If you stop paying your loans, however, Tala alerts everyone in your contact list. In this way, the app has digitized a social accountability function.”
The initial reaction from Salon Participants was shock, but it was pointed out that traditional Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) function the same way – through social sanction. “The difference here is transparency and consent,” it was noted. “In a community you might not have choice about whether everyone knows you defaulted on your small loan. But you are aware that this is what will happen. With Tala, people didn’t realize that the app had access to their contacts and that it would alert those contacts, so consent and transparency are the issues.”
The principle of informed consent in the humanitarian space poses a constant challenge. “Does a refugee who registers with UNHCR really have any choice? If they need food and have to provide minimal information to get it, is that consent? What if they have zero digital literacy?” Researcher Helen Nissenbaum, it was noted, has written that consent is problematic and that we should not pursue it. “It’s not really about individual consent. It’s about how we set standards and ensure transparency and accountability for how an individual’s information is used,” explained one Salon participant.
These challenges with data use and consent need to be considered beyond just individual privacy, however, as another participant noted. “There is all manner of vector-based data in the WFP’s system. Other agencies don’t have this kind of disaggregated data at the village level or lower. What happens if Palantir, via the WFP, is the first company in the world to have that low level disaggregation? And what happens with the digital ID of particularly vulnerable groups of people such as refugee communities or LGBTQI communities? How could these Digital IDs be used to discriminate or harm entire groups of people? What does it mean if a particular category or tag like ‘refugee’ or ‘low income’ follows you around forever?”
One Salon participant said that in Jordanian camps, refugees would register for one thing and be surprised at how their data then automatically popped up on the screen of a different partner organization. Other participants expressed concerns about how Digital ID systems and their implications could be explained to people with less digital experience or digital literacy. “Since the GDPR came into force, people have the right to an explanation if they are subject to an automated decision,” noted one person “But what does compliance look like? How would anyone ever understand what is going on?” This will become increasingly complex as technology advances and we begin to see things like digital phenotyping being used to serve up digital content or determine our benefits.
Can we please have better standards, regulations and incentives?
A final question raised about Digital ID systems was who should be implementing and managing them: UN agencies? Governments? Private Sector? Start-ups? At the moment the ecosystem includes all sorts of actors and feels a bit “Wild Wild West” due to insufficient control and regulation. At the same time, there are fears (as noted above) about a “one system to rule them all approach.” “So,” asked one person, “what should we be doing then? Should UN agencies be building in-house expertise? Should we be partnering better with the private sector? We debate this all the time internally and we can never agree.” Questions also remain about what happens with the biometric and other data that failed start-ups or discontinued digital ID systems hold. And is it a good idea to support government-controlled ID systems in countries with corrupt or failed governments, or those who will use these systems to persecute or exercise undue control over their populations?
As one person asked, “Why are we doing this? Why are we even creating these digital ID systems?”
Although there are huge concerns about Digital ID, the flip side is that a Digital ID system could potentially offer better security for sensitive information, at least in the case of humanitarian organizations. “Most organizations currently handle massive amounts of data in Excel sheets and Google docs with zero security,” said one person. “There is PII [personally identifiable information] flowing left, right, and center.” Where donors have required better data management standards, there has been improvement, but it requires massive investment, and who will pay for it?” Sadly, donors are currently not covering these costs. As a representative from one large INGO explained, “we want to avoid the use of Excel to track this stuff. We are hoping that our digital ID system will be more secure. We see this as a very good idea if you can nail down the security aspects.”
The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is often quoted as the “gold standard,” yet implementation is complex and the GDPR is not specific enough, according to some Salon participants. Not to mention, “if you are UN, you don’t have to follow GDPR.” Many at the Salon felt that the GDPR has had very positive effects but called out the lack of incentive structures that would encourage full adoption. “No one does anything unless there is an enforcing function.” Others felt that the GDPR was too prescriptive about what to do, rather than setting limits on what not to do.
One effort to watch is the Pan Canadian Trust Foundation, mentioned as a good example of creating a functioning and decentralized ecosystem that could potentially address some of the above challenges.
The Salon ended with more questions than answers, however there is plenty of research and conversation happening about digital ID and a wide range of actors engaging with the topic. If you’d like to read more, check out this list of resources that we put together for the Salon and add any missing documents, articles, links and resources!
Salons run under Chatham House Rule, so no attribution has been made in this post. Technology Salons happen in several cities around the world. If you’d like to join a discussion, sign up here. If you’d like to host a Salon, suggest a topic, or support us to keep doing Salons in NYC please get in touch with me! 🙂