Reports weigh potential positive and negative social impacts of digital ID

Digital identity systems backed by biometrics are proving powerful means for bringing social assistance to millions across the world, but the drive to help some of the most vulnerable in society could be leaving them even more exposed to further issues and exploitation, a pair of new reports argue.

The development sector places a great deal of emphasis on the benefits to development of having secure ID systems that allow individuals to access help and services. The UN has “providing legal identity for all” by 2030 as Sustainable Development Goal 16.9. The World Bank has its Identification for Development Initiative (ID4D), including biometrics, and the bank’s latest Africa’s Pulse report is dedicated to the economic importance of digital transformations for Africa, underpinned by digital ID.

According to the Mozilla Internet Health Report, which sees the internet as becoming an increasingly complicated phenomenon, the creation of biometrics-based digital ID systems and databases across multiple aspects of life such as health and legal status in a country means that “potential linking opportunities within these systems create a powerful tool for mass surveillance.”

Magdalena Sepúlveda, senior researcher at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, outlines the rush to adopt. Writing for the journal International Politics and Society, she states: “In many of the developing countries that are expanding their social-protection and biometric-identification programs, the frameworks for protecting personal data are underdeveloped. Yet donors and government authorities often advocate the widest possible integration of databases, among public and private entities alike.”

The development sector is contributing to the implementation of digital ID. For example, the private ID industry supports ID4Africa, which is funded by and has representatives from several UN agencies on its board, runs pan-African summits to promote knowledge transfer for digital identity technologies and encourage greater uptake.

Private companies are picking up the contracts both to supply biometric capture equipment and then build and manage the databases. Sepúlveda cites the examples of household names such as Visa and MasterCard running government contracts, including South Africa’s social assistance biometric card, operated by MasterCard.

Other private businesses in South Africa have gone on to use “the information of millions of social-protection beneficiaries to increase corporate profits to the detriment of beneficiary interests,” according to Sepúlveda.

The World Bank’s April 2019 edition of Africa’s Pulse explains the benefits of digital transformation for the continent. It also shows how powerful tools can be for surveillance: “New ICTs have enabled early warning systems to leverage information from within communities to detect confrontations between former combatants (or other actors) that threaten to break out into violence. A pioneering example of the application of information technology was the use of the Ushahidi software to monitor violence during Kenya’s postelection crisis during 2007/08, which reduced the risk of escalating violence.”

The government has continued to develop its biometrics and Kenyan rights groups have since taken their government to court and won their case to prevent it from barring the unregistered from accessing government services and taking DNA samples for its database as an invasion of privacy.

The very biometrics systems set up to help the vulnerable can also then block this support. The 2018 Annual Report for the World Bank’s ID4D Initiative (PDF) describes an area of concern for 2019 as: “There could be unintended consequences which lead to exclusion from access to critical services (e.g. due to biometric authentication failures at the point of service if no alternatives are available). More work is needed to understand exclusion risks and to identify people-centric and privacy-conscious solutions to mitigate them.”

While Mozilla’s Internet Health Report concludes with the more assertive note of having constitutional and international human rights standards “baked in” to digital ID schemes to empower the communities served, Sepúlveda remains more sanguine. She argues that the more privileged in society fail to recognize the risks posed to the less advantaged, who are forced to forfeit their privacy in return for benefits. All levels of society should be advocating for their protection, but “if people need a stronger incentive, there is always self-interest, because the risks faced by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged today may well become reality for a much broader cross-section of society tomorrow.”

Updated May 5, 2019 at 5:19 pm ET to clarify the role of private industry in ID4Africa.

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