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Red Cross highlights opportunities for digital ID in humanitarian sector

Cautious approach and analysis needed

digital identity biometric registration

Humanitarian aid organizations are starting to digitize services and adapt to new developments in the digital identity and decentralized identification sectors to better identify those in need, says the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in a new report.

One of the main challenges that humanitarian aid organizations face is identifying who to help. If a community or population are not identifiable, either by lack of birth registration or national identity document, they may be totally invisible to organizations trying to supply aid. Implementing inclusive, ethical digital identity systems proves difficult in low-connectivity, complex settings. Furthermore, providing data agency in a sustainable way is important to protect vulnerable populations against potential mass data misuse.

IFRC highlights the cultural changes in data governance, and the political will to achieve multi-stakeholder interoperability that would need to be considered before adoption of digital solutions, an analysis by Solferino Academy notes. The main attribute of digital ID systems, though, is the flexibility and durability with which they can operate, for example, in a disaster these credentials could otherwise be destroyed.

Digital solutions link individuals’ biometric data to an identity document, through which beneficiaries can claim supplies. Making digital ID’s usable by all humanitarian organizations would help to build trust across the sector, particularly if one beneficiary needed to interact with several different organizations using several different systems. Last year however, the ICRC warned that biometrics use in humanitarian contexts should always be accompanied by data protection impact assessments, calling biometrics the greatest challenge to data controls in humanitarian efforts.

It is pertinent that digital identity and biometric systems are seen as an extension of a person’s physical self, say IFRC, therefore building-in privacy and protection will play a huge role in their efficacy.

In 2019, the ICRC implemented a new Biometric Data Policy to ensure the ethical use of biometric technology and to focus on data protection roadblocks.

IFRC make recommendations for actions that should be taken by organizations and developers, which include; investing resources upfront in the development of in-house technical expertise; financing digital identity systems as a digital public good through the investment of public sector funders; looking to open standards for interoperability and data exchange; and developing portability in other sectors to expand into an interoperable ecosystem.

For example, in a low-connectivity setting an audio-interface was trialled but ultimately led to the abandonment of an SSI-based solution due to lack of funding.

Programme management system Red Rose works exclusively to build technology for the humanitarian sector, providing a decentralized identifier which can be used to power cash-based transfer payments.

It remains an open question whether any single organization should invest in the technology, say IFRC. Overall digital and biometric identification systems show strong potential for benefiting both beneficiaries and the aid organizations themselves, yet each country and situation will need individual analysis and planning.

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