From stateless to self-sovereign: A project that gives life-long identity to the world’s invisibles beginning at birth

From stateless to self-sovereign: A project that gives life-long identity to the world’s invisibles beginning at birth

This is a guest post by Alex Andrade-Walz, Director of Marketing at Evernym, a leader in verifiable credential technology.

There are 1.1 billion people without an official identity, a third of whom are children. Many are refugees or ethnic minorities who struggle to achieve recognition by a federal government. Without an identity, access to vital services such as healthcare, social protection, education and banking can be out of reach. They have no way of proving “I exist.”

In some countries, establishing citizenship and birth records can be difficult, especially for ethnic minorities. With limited measures in place to protect them a lack of identity can be a life-long curse. Fortunately, there is some hope on the horizon.

Working for change

Seattle-based iRespond, an international nonprofit whose mission is to use identity to improve outcomes for disadvantaged populations, is combining privacy-protecting biometrics with distributed ledger technology to give the world’s most vulnerable populations a highly-secure, verifiable proof of identity that can’t be lost, stolen or confiscated.

The company’s projects include issuing a unique identifier using biometrics to 170,000 Thai migrant fishermen to prevent human rights abuses; 60,000 HIV patients in Myanmar for efficient healthcare delivery; and 10,000 predominately-Karen refugees in the Mae La camp in western Thailand, as well as a host of other projects across southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

And now, the small NGO with a giant footprint is setting its sights on addressing the root of the problem: identity should begin at birth. 40,000 babies a day are born into families with no recognized identity, continuing a forsaken cycle. iRespond’s pilot will create a record of a birth, attested by a trusted clinic, with a goal of changing the life trajectory for the participants. A guardianship relationship between the newborn and the mother is established and linked to digital and high security physical identity documents.

Bringing identity to the stateless

The pilot project involves providing “birth attestation” credentials, in both digital and paper form, to families of newborns, who are frequently stateless themselves. Product development began in early 2020. Deployment and implementation continues throughout 2020 at the implementing partner, the Mae Tao Clinic, in western Thailand near the Myanmar border. The clinic is run almost entirely by rotating volunteers and has a 30 year history of providing healthcare and protection services to vulnerable populations.

The solution is built around verifiable credentials. Only the holder, which in this case is the mother, can access and share the credential through biometrics, in the form of an iris scan. This digital credential provides redundancy for the paper-based credential, and allows individuals to recover their paper documents if they are ever lost or stolen. Conversely, digital credentials can be recovered using their physical document.

Commenting on the launch, Scott Reid, CEO at iRespond, explained how the project provides both privacy and identity to its users: “While the credential does not carry the same weight as a true birth certificate, issuing a birth attestation could leapfrog the traditional barriers to establishing identity. Our team at iRespond has a long history of privacy-by-design identity solutions, providing the experience to create this innovative process, while protecting privacy.”

Once the pilot is completed, iRespond is ready to quickly deploy the solution at scale.

The need for anonymity

For the world’s stateless, privacy can be a matter of life and death. If the identities of these stateless individuals were ever to fall into the hands of a malicious party or government, a bad situation could get much worse.

Ethnic and minority groups often face persecution in their home countries and the places where they seek refuge. Simply exposing an individual’s last name could reveal an ethnicity or religion, putting them in jeopardy. Likewise, the leak of personal health data could be life-threatening, especially with the prevailing stereotypes against HIV/AIDS and the criminal classification in parts of the world of many of its common modes of transmission, including drug use, sex work, and same-sex sexual activity.

At the same time, the identity solution must be portable. Millions of people are mobile, seeking better living conditions or employment; fleeing famine, war, climate disasters, or persecution. To solve the identity problem, portability and recovery are critical.

With this model of identity, often called ‘self-sovereign identity (SSI),’ control and ownership of identity data belong to the holder. This sharply contrasts with many other forms of identity, which can be revoked, often without warning or reason.

Digital identity as a basic human right

The causes of why over a billion people are without recognized identity is twofold. Some governments lack the resources to provide identity at birth, or later. More frequently unfortunately, identity is withheld because governments would prefer that ethnic minorities didn’t exist.

We can’t change their beliefs,” CEO Scott Reid added, “but we believe we can change the outcomes. Only when everyone has a proof of identity, that they control and manage, can we finally start to level the playing field for humanity’s most vulnerable populations.”

About the author

Alex Andrade-Walz is the Director of Marketing at Evernym, a leader in verifiable credential technology. He commonly writes about identity and digital trust. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

DISCLAIMER: Biometric Update’s Industry Insights are submitted content. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Biometric Update.

 

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