Civil society and industry tackle issues with biometrics and digital ID for social development

What do we mean by digital identity? Can institutions and governments be trusted to run ID systems? Who should implement and manage digital ID? What happens with biometric data collected by failed startups or abandoned systems? A Technology Salon considering these and other thorny questions was recently held at the Open Society Foundation’s (OSF’s) New York offices, with lead discussants Savita Bailur and Emrys Schoemaker of Caribou Digital and Aiden Slavin of ID2020.

Participants in the salon, which started with the general question “Will digital identities support or control us?” noted digital ID’s potential for positive impact, but also shared concerns about potential harms, a lack of trust, and underdeveloped policy and regulations, according to a blog post. The relative benefits and risks associated with one unified system compared to a decentralized range of systems was considered, along with the practical realities of what consent means in an aid-distribution scheme, and how to ensure identity data is not used against the people its collection is intended to benefit.

The Salon series is organized by MERL Tech Co-founder Linda Raftree, and run under Chatham House Rules, so no comments are attributed to specific attendees.

“ID is embedded in your relationships and networks,” one attendee explained. “It creates a new set of dependencies and problems that we need to consider.”

The question of to what extent and in what circumstances women and children benefit from identity systems was also discussed.

The potential benefits of digital identity for women in developing wold contexts is also the topic of a new report from the GSMA Association. “Digital identity opportunities for women: Insights from Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Rwanda” reports that identity documents are highly valued, but there is also a complex gender narrative associated with identity, among several key findings. Other findings include the importance of registering for mobile services in your own name, the important role mobile services are already playing in many women’s identity journeys, and the need to address customer trust and data security at the level of front-line workers.

The 72-page report presents the situations in the three countries, which have significant differences in national ID coverage and gender gap in mobile ownership. The GSMA Association sees high opportunity levels in several areas for each country for mobile-enabled identity services.

A white paper from Zetes titled “Beyond Identity: An Ecosystem to Supply Quality Public Services” argues that the limited scope and ambition of national ID schemes hinders their effectiveness, and offers strategic advice for successful implementation.

Over the course of 48 pages, the Zetes People ID Project Manager and Solutions Architect Dr. Extase Akpotsui makes the case that the right tool or ecosystem for population information can deliver more efficient public services, and governments that adopt such an ecosystem can lead digital transformation in their countries. Biometrics characteristics make up a major part of a national identification database, which sits at the core of such an ecosystem. Other major elements include legal grounding, legal identity data, user rights, technical and organizational measures, and civil status.

The question of whether “Good ID” can be measured is also examined in a recent blog post by Omidyar Director of Marketing Strategy and Communications Abiah Weaver.

Weaver suggests basic a system of measurement on people’s experiences, and notes that Consumer Reports, Disconnect, The Cyber International Testing Lab, and ID2020 are all developing technical requirements and certifications to help identify Good ID.

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