Challenges in Latin American biometric national ID initiatives outlined by Women in Identity

Challenges in Latin American biometric national ID initiatives outlined by Women in Identity

While countries across Latin America have adopted biometrics for their national digital ID schemes, issues with ease of access and interoperability make it challenging for many people in the region to take advantage of them, panelists told the audience of a Women in Identity webinar.

Women in Identity is a non-profit, volunteer led organisation with over 1,100 members. The group is connecting with people worldwide via their YouTube channel, holding regular webinars.

WiD’s mission is to create a more diverse workforce in the digital identity industry, in order to make digital solutions equally as diverse.

In Latin American countries, without a digital identity or a national identity card (NID), a person’s access to public and financial services is severely affected. To combat this, organisations all over the continent have been targeting rural, border, and indigenous populations to try and engage people to register themselves on government systems. Access to digital infrastructure is a challenge across the region, because many of these systems require a mobile device or internet access significant target populations are being excluded.

Biometrics are at the core of this NID initiative: all 10 fingerprints are collected by governments across the continent whilst some also collect facial images.

The modernization of digital identification systems is enabling the transition from electoral purposes to their use in more efficient tax collections, and reducing administrative duties. Some countries have developed online identity verification systems and other online services. Several resulting identification initiatives include cash transfer programs and accessible e-resources.

Estefania Calderon, at Ideas for All describes how in Latin American countries, legal identification is granted by the government via a birth certificate. All countries except Mexico and Brazil offer this service. Over the past 10 years on the continent, there has been a notable effort in registering every single birth. This has meant registration of approximately 6 million additional children. However, WiD estimates that 3 million children under the age of 5 are still living without formal identification documents, while COVID-19 is predicted to increase these numbers. The full impact of the pandemic on the digital identity systems is not yet known.

Birth certificates are the legal requirement in procuring an NID card. Some of these NID cards include chips or a digital signature, it varies from country to country; but all gather biometric information. Calderon notes that the use of biometrics by governments is commonplace throughout Latin America.

The webinar particularly highlighted the importance of maintaining data privacy, expressing the need for government entities to keep this in mind when designing and implementing systems. This is due to privacy concerns over collection of biometric data, and though governments are prioritising secure systems, some countries are still working with paper-based systems which make it more difficult to confront corruption.

The migrant crisis in Latin America has proved particularly challenging for migrants who cannot produce identity documents or whose documents cannot be accepted by their host country. If host and birth countries have two different systems, obtaining documents can be difficult. Therefore, interoperability is key to devising how NID can be verified across countries in the region.

Second speaker Maria Hernandez, founder of Venezuelan NGO Acceso Libre stated that while many novel systems are being developed it is important to maintain a user-centric approach as solutions ought to be accessible for diverse and vulnerable populations too.

Hernandez outlined Venezuela’s use of fingerprint scanners which began with the country’s electronic voting system, and was followed by its roll out in supermarkets and pharmacies for cash transactions. In 2017 the government then launched a Homeland Card, which gathered more detailed information on each citizen, to try and replace the NID card so that the government might provide a broader range of social programs, for instance for students, and those with disabilities.

Third speaker was Rebecca Omana, at OAS Universal Civil Identity Program in the Americas. OAS has been working to modernise government identity systems and databases. Their first initiative was a Canadian-funded project to create a Haitian NID card in 2005 for voter registrations. The funding helped to found the Office of National Identification in Haiti, a system that has since 2019 expanded to 19 countries. Now, however, the NID card and database are used by citizens for actions like opening bank accounts.

The next online conference featuring WiD participation will be Goode Intelligence’s Identity Futures London 2020, held from 23 to 25 November, which will explore future digital identity and biometric initiatives.

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