Digital IDs for refugees sound good, but what good could they really do?

Digital IDs for refugees sound good, but what good could they really do?

Cynics expect the worst in human endeavors, while anyone involved in a refugee crisis has witnessed the worst of human endeavors. The argument over national digital IDs manages to represent both of those views.

Libertarians and technology marketers say digital IDs would protect the humanity of the suddenly stateless. An article in the journal Geopolitics critiquing those perspectives acknowledges that digital, biometric IDs could be an “enabler of new modes of empowerment, autonomy and data security” for refugees.

However, digital IDs (backed by blockchains as well as biometrics) also could be used to harden bureaucratic power over refugees and exploit them commercially, according to the article.

The idea of national digital IDs has been adopted by some proponents of self-sovereign identity. As the argument goes, when individuals need to be validated, they should at least have some control over how, and recourse to a government that recognizes their rights. A self-sovereign digital ID could provide that.

People trying to tech problems into submission see millions of undocumented people fleeing political, economic or environmental havoc as an attractive use case.

Some refugee rights advocates who see how little the world has evolved in response to centuries of crises, push digital IDs, too, if only because it was never a possibility before. It is worth a shot, in their eyes, to find a viable way for refugees to be recognized, a crucial step for the stateless.

But self-sovereign identification is “an embryonic technology,” according to the article, and it is impossible to make predictions about how it will help much less how it might be developed and deployed.

The article notes that decentralized identity schemes have attracted public-private efforts including those led by deep-pocketed technology giants including Microsoft and Accenture and blockchain upstarts like Evernym and Consensys. Self-sovereign ID software firm Evernym has been involved in the related ID2020 Alliance project, along with iRespond.

The article states that it is unclear if refugees really own and manage their data in these systems. Just as critical, it can be argued that consent for a biometric iris scan cannot ethically be accepted from desperate migrants who may well have agreed to much worse demands to reach safety.

And the reality is that few highly educated people in the United States understand what is at stake right now in terms of their data. They are letting businesses and governments manage their data to their own benefit.

Poorer people around world likely will make the same decision, effectively giving bureaucracies and companies nontransparent control over the data.

And what about the cost?

Someone will have to pay to create digital ID accounts, maintain their accessibility, update systems and protect data. The wealthy can make that investment, but the wealthy rarely walk hundreds of miles to live in squalid camps hoping for physical salvation. And the nations most likely to experience mass emigration typically cannot find funds for public toilets.

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