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How team diversity can change the way identity systems are built

How team diversity can change the way identity systems are built

“How would you prove who you are to me?” asked Savita Bailur, Research Director at Caribou Digital, in a webinar hosted by Women in Identity, a non-profit organization that promotes diversity in identity and has more than 1,000 members. Bailur has over fifteen years of experience in user research in digital development and qualitative research, and was joined in the webinar by her colleague and research lead Emrys Schoemaker. In the webinar titled “Designing for Diversity Across the Identity Ecosystem,” the two discussed industry gaps and opportunities for identity product designers.

While government IDs are probably the first to jump into one’s mind, it depends on the context. Social identity, as pointed out by one of the attendees, is just as important as a government-issued ID, as it can involve DNA, biometric data and family heritage details that greatly contribute to an individual’s identity. A government-issued ID can only prove certain aspects of a person’s identity.

“A birth certificate, or a passport or a driving license that’s issued by a body that recognizes your entitlement to certain services, or certain rights, that that identity credential reflects; if you have a driver’s license, you’re allowed to drive, if you have a passport, you’re a citizen of a country and that’s a statement of a legal status,” explained Schoemaker.

However, sometimes identification is carried out through digital footprints such as social networks or through web histories where users knowingly share information. This type of identification, Schoemaker believes, casts doubt over who controls the identification process, because users can no longer control the context of what becomes relevant or not.

When she arrived in the U.S., Bailur had to prove her ID employment and financial status, as well as English proficiency, among others, which ended up being countless gigabytes of data. According to the World Bank, she said, some 45 percent of women around the world do not even have a foundational ID. This type of exclusion is a result of a number of obstacles such as no access, ownership and society’s expectations. In countries such as Bangladesh, for example, women have national IDs, but the IDs are kept by the husbands. To have access to their own ID, women have to explain to their husbands why they need them.

Digital identity systems are not tailored to meet the needs of all citizens, because there is a lack of diversity. Diversity is highly important in building identity products, because only a diverse team can bring the necessary life experience to develop a holistic tool.

While life might be easier for some privileged populations, there are many vulnerable, underprivileged people who do not have access and they are left out. According to international human rights laws, all people should have access to government services, medical care, voter and electoral systems, and financial services.

Bailur explained the story of a man who was visually impaired and struggled to get money out of an ATM, even if it was equipped with voice biometrics, because other people around would hear details of his transactions. Each time he wanted to share his ID number, the process was complicated as someone else had to read the card out. “The whole point of identity is that there’s a sense of agency over who you are and your identity, but in that case, there wasn’t any agency, he was giving somebody else the opportunity to define who he was,” she said.

Diversity is a challenge, as many are struggling to get their voices heard. When developing identity systems, product designers have to consider what users think and fear, but also what the ultimate goal is, said WorldReach Director, Shelley Bryen, one of the webinar’s attendees. Bryen explained how the elderly, babies, nationalities, gender-neutral, trans, and people with disabilities such as blindness were all included during the user testing process for a photo QA service for country passports, based on a system dubbed Know Your Traveler.

“Also, from a Canadian perspective,” Bryen added, “on our passports we have for gender an X that you can choose. So, when you get into the border perspective, systems are used to thinking male, female; so, there’s all of those types of difficulties as well.”

For Schoemaker, the focus on identification systems was driven by his desperate efforts to get his Dutch citizenship legitimized which involved aligning birth certificates, attesting legal copies, and so on. “It really brought to light, for someone in such a privileged situation as myself, how important getting identity identification credentials is, but how challenging it can be as well,” he said. After speaking to people around the world, Schoemaker called it “a visceral experience that can be very challenging at times.” Recently he has been more focused on identification issues encountered by refugees, humanitarian contexts, and social protection systems.

Who gets to decide how people are identified? In today’s climate, privacy can mean different things to different people. Highly regulated industries such as FinTech or financial services face a number of restrictions and must be compliant with different KYC regulations, depending on jurisdiction. Schoemaker believes biometric facial recognition offers many advantages beyond phone unlocking, but points out algorithm training challenges that may lead to bias. “The reliability of authentication systems, particularly where they’re based on biometrics is obviously critical,” he said.

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