Role of biometrics and private sector in legal identity debated in UNDP event

digital identity biometric registration

The private sector and biometrics likely both have roles in legal identity systems, participants in a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) event said, but what those roles are, and the relationship between legal and digital ID, remain subjects of significant disagreement.

The private sector engagement roundtable titled ‘Future of Technology and Institutional Governance in Identity Management’ covered a wide range of issues over the course of five sessions and a concluding dialogue, including the future of physical identity documents.

ID4Africa Executive Chairman Dr. Joseph Atick hosted an opening session on ‘ownership, control and management of legal identity systems and data.’ Atick asked if partnerships in which the private sector is tasked with issuing legal identity are appropriate, and if there is an alternative to the private sector supporting State in a traditional way. An example provided for this kind of partnership is the registration of people for legal identity by telecoms as, in Nigeria, where an estimated 100 million people will be granted National Identification Numbers through biometrics enrollment and registration as part of SIM issuance.

On the latter point, Google West and Francophone Africa Public Policy Lead Titi Akinsanmi says traditional methods will not work for a fully inclusive vision, and new approaches are needed, as shown by people left behind by NIN registration used as example above.

As guests joined the discussion to debate what data should be considered as part of legal identity, and whether it must be immutable, Hyland Credentials SVP of Business Development Natalie Smolenski noted the uniqueness of legal identity among identities, which often do not have to be either unique or immutable.

Smolenski also pointed out the divergence of opinions on the role of the private sector in identity systems even among private sector identity technology providers.

The sessions at times focussed on practical concerns, and at others on theoretical ones, the dialogue ranged from esoteric points to highly technical ones. The complexity of the relationship between the state, individuals and their legal identity or identities, and therefore the importance of context, was raised repeatedly.

The concluding session was facilitated by Naman M. Aggarwal of Access Now, and featured a panel including representatives from biometrics providers including NEC and civil society groups. It was originally titled ‘what is an ideal future national and international legal identity ecosystem?’ but was recast as ‘is there an ideal future national and international legal identity system?’ in consultation with event participants.

A variety of sometimes-conflicting views were expressed by participants, including an allegation of ‘slight of hand’ with ‘legal ID’ meaning biometrics and ID cards for everyone, and the declaration that all technologies and political systems will fail, so how a system copes with those failures is the key.

The limitations of biometrics to improve governance were discussed. Speakers suggested that systems must include alternatives to biometrics, which introduces weaker assurance, and also that biometric databases at scale inevitably include people who should not there, making it impossible for the technology to effectively replace governance.

Asked during the session how to avoid a race to the bottom among vendors, OSIA Chair and Idemia Senior Market Manager Debora Comparin said that the governance of identity systems lies outside of the private sector’s control. Even though traditional and digital identity providers are coming together in modern systems, Comparin notes that they are largely separate industries. While best practices are being developed and disseminated, industry change is happening within a context of broader change in what identity means that is largely outside of its control.

Aggarwal noted that there was some consensus around the opinion that biometrics should be used carefully and only when strictly necessary.

Most panelists answered the central question about whether there is an ideal legal identity system in the negative, and felt that multiple identities are generally a practical necessity for people.

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