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Turing Institute on Trustworthy Digital Identity: is the medium overshadowing the message?

UK to open more datasets, public concerned over biometric surveillance
Turing Institute on Trustworthy Digital Identity: is the medium overshadowing the message?

The Alan Turing Institute’s inaugural conference on trustworthy digital identity explored the risks to vulnerable populations faced with digital identity scheme enrollment (or exclusion therefrom) and how such systems become the focus of attention, rather than remaining the tool for enabling the services promised, according to the Institute’s own summary of the event.

In May 2021, the Turing Institute published its technical briefing to outline its concept of “trustworthiness” in digital identity management (versus “trusted” digital identity). This was the first conference in a series bringing academia, government, humanitarian agencies and industry from 29 countries together to discuss the impact of digital identity and the risks it poses, and how to foster trustworthy systems.

Hannah Rutter, deputy director for Digital Identity and Secure Connected Places at the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, opened the conference with a session on a Trust Framework for the development of Digital Identity products in the UK. She said the use of digital identity products could save businesses £800 million (US$1.1 billion) a year.

Rutter outlined plans for more government datasets to be opened for verification checks such as welfare statements.

Harry Farmer, researcher, Ada Lovelace Institute, detailed growing public awareness over “ambient surveillance” and the potentially huge risks:

“People are becoming sensitive to the fact that biometric ID systems can be used to enable a particular kind of ambient surveillance that is difficult to become aware of and quite difficult to escape, and they are aware of the potential of that kind of surveillance to undermine free, open societies,” he said, citing findings from the Institute’s recent Citizens’ Biometrics Council.

“There was just a general feeling amongst the public that there should not be the use of biometric identification systems for anything where failure would be catastrophic.”

In Uganda, digital ID is altering people’s relationship with the state, said Katelyn Cioffi, research scholar, Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, NYU School of Law.

“I think the social contract behind the delivery of welfare payments has been affected by the introduction of digital ID. The authority to make determinations about the program has become removed from the local communities where it was originally located. It has changed the way the social welfare system is viewed, as it is no longer seen as something local but something more centralized and much more dictated by powers that are beyond the local community,” said Cioffi, describing how institutional responsibilities for delivering welfare were becoming fragmented because of digital ID.

“The infrastructure needs to be serviced and becomes a policy area of its own, rather than being seen as a mechanism of improving service delivery.”

Politics will always play a key role, according to Babatunde Okunoye, research affiliate, Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society, Harvard University; Department of Journalism Film and Television, University of Johannesburg, who spoke about the situation in Nigeria and the need for ID systems to be “birthed via public consultation” and open to audit.

“Politics trumps everything. The nature of government in power can make nonsense of whatever design is implicit in particular ID systems,” said Okunoye.

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