Women in Identity co-founder Emma Lindley urges biometrics industry to slow down and fix things
When Women in Identity co-founder Emma Lindley climbed Mt. Toubkal, the tallest mountain in North Africa, raising awareness about diversity in the identity industry was part of the goal. The greater priority, however, was raising the funds to enable at least one more woman from the African identity ecosystem to attend the next annual meeting of ID4Africa in Marrakesh, Morocco in 2020, to make a concrete improvement in the diversity balance of the event, Lindley emphasized to Biometric Update in an interview.
Lindley and others participating in the initial discussion were not certain of the need for a ‘women-in’ group in the identity industry, or what its mandate would be. After a meetup at Identiverse, the level of interest and demand was clear, but so too was a desire to address some developing issues around AI and other identity technology. From her background in business development, regulation, and product development, Lindley sees the make-up of industry organizations as creating a barrier to solving problems through the application of technology.
“The way that’s playing out in our industry, not having very diverse teams, is that the products that are being developed actually have that unconscious bias baked into them,” she explains. “And it’s not because anybody wakes up in the morning and says ‘I’m going to make a product that doesn’t work particularly well for one set of human beings,’ but the reality is you have homogenous teams, you’re going to miss things.”
The lack of diversity in the industry may be fueling differences in performance between different demographics, and therefore accusations of bias against identity technology, which have dogged facial recognition in particular. While facial recognition ‘bias’ draws the big headlines, Lindley sees a more pervasive, potentially troublesome problem that she believes the industry has yet to fully come to terms with.
“So as we kind of got into Women in Identity and thinking through this stuff we realized actually this is a much bigger thing here,” Lindley elaborates. “Yes, having a ‘women in’ group is great, and having networking and all of those types of things is super-important, that’s one of our four pillars of what we do in our organization, but really as an industry we have to think about our product development and building products that work for people. That is our vision statement, that digital identity solutions for everyone need to be built by everyone, because they will enable us, if we have more diverse teams, to build better products as an industry.”
The group officially launched as a not-for-profit in June, and having recently eclipsed 600 members, Women in Identity was named one of the 10 most influential organizations in the digital identity community by Goode Intelligence.
The four project areas of Women in Identity are events and networking, as mentioned above, but also a jobs board, which seeks to connect individual women in identity with positions that enable them to utilize their skillsets to benefit themselves and the industry, internships to help prepare women for larger industry roles with work experience, and research into diversity and related issues.
The organization offers membership for free, to be as accessible as possible, and Lindley hopes to engage women and others in Africa and elsewhere and provide them with a platform, which will improve Women in Identity‘s internal diversity, and in turn enhance diversity across the industry.
“It’s not just a ‘nice to have,’” Lindley states. “It can’t just be a tick in the box. We have to do this as an industry.”
Lindley also recently joined the Advisory Board of Trust Stamp, and says she found the company interesting in part because of its work in the humanitarian space, and the alignment of its vision for identity with her personal vision. Trust Stamp’s approach of using zero-knowledge proofs and hashing biometric data can protect privacy by mitigating the risk of biometrics being breached or hacked.
“They’ve got very interesting support, they’re working with some really interesting companies, and I feel very confidant that their technology works,” she says.
The company is working with the NCSC Cyber Accelerator, operated by GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre. While accelerators and new technologies may fairly be associated with companies prioritizing speed to market, according to Lindley, TrustStamp takes time to be thoughtful in its development process. Lindley lauds the strategy of in-person research into vulnerable communities’ problems taken by Caribou Digital in its solutions development as another example of an appropriately deliberative approach, contrasting it with the popular silicon-valley mantra of ‘move fast and break stuff.’
“There’s a lot of things that are broken right now,” Lindley states.
It is in the industry’s long-term best interest, Lindley argues, to take a more deliberative approach to product development.
“If build a bit slower, thought about a bit more, a bit more considerate, that doesn’t mean not coming to market with good product, it means coming to market with something better,” she contends.
At a recent identity conference, Women in Identity ran a workshop Lindley estimates held between 30 and 40 people, and asked attendees if they consider the limitations of their perspective or their potential biases when beginning the product development process. No hands were raised.
In some ways, this challenge is one the industry has created for itself, through the early successes of biometric and digital identity technology.
“I’ve been in this industry for a long time, but over the last five years it seems to me there has been a real, what I would call a gold rush into identity,” Lindley observes. “Lots of venture capital money, lots of private equity firms, companies floating, all of that type of stuff.”
This encourages the drive to move quickly, developing solutions ahead of the competition, or in some cases even to bring technology to market that fails to properly address the problem.
“I think we need to go back to; what is the problem we are trying to solve,” Lindley says. “And then we think about how we go about solving it. Technology is actually one of the last things you should be -thinking about.”
As the people most familiar with the identity-related issues facing people in Africa are those who live there, and in accord with ID4Africa’s push for increased diversity, Lindley is pleased to report her climb up Mt. Toubkal raised $10,000, which is expected to pay the airfare and hotel accommodations for four women who would otherwise have been unable to attend the next annual meeting. Their presence can help build their personal skill-sets and professional networks, while also improving the gender balance of the event.
If that improvement leads to clearer identification of the initiatives that will help vulnerable and under-represented communities, or the details that will make them effective, then the increasingly powerful technologies the industry has at its disposal can be more effectively deployed to help people.