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UN explores digital identity sector to inform legal identity progress

National ID boosts biometrics market forecast of $44B by 2026
UN explores digital identity sector to inform legal identity progress

The UNDP has released the final report of a series of roundtable sessions it held in the spring to examine the status quo of the private sector for digital identity technology. Via human rights declarations and other global goals, the UN is committed to legal identity for all and decided to examine the current and future situations of digital identity as part of this mission.

While the significance of blockchain was discussed at length for future identity systems, the roundtable found that the birth certificates is the gold standard of legal identity which empowers the holder to access rights. Governments are still seen as having a key role to play and a great deal of consultation is needed in a state before it implements a digital ID system.

Meanwhile, ResearchAndMarket.com has released a new report, ‘Biometrics – Global Market Trajectory and Analytics’, which predicts the global biometrics market valued at $19.5 billion in 2020 will more than double to reach $44.1 billion by 2026 in part due to the opportunities coming as national ID programs use biometrics to secure identity.

How and why to engage with the digital ID sector

The UN Legal Identity Agenda Task Force was established in 2018 as a way for the UN system to assist member states in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 of a legal identity for all by 2030. The UNDP, UNICEF and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) are co-chairs of the Task Force.

In response to increasing demands from member states for assistance with digital legal identity, the UNDP and Task Force decided to hold a roundtable with the digital identity private sector to be better informed of the changes that will impact the public management of identity.

“Legal identity is fundamental to access public and private services and the importance of digitisation of legal identity systems is indisputable,” says Sarah Lister, director of Governance, UNDP, in her opening remarks. “It also has various human rights implications and it is incumbent on the UN, and all stakeholders, to have discussions about the human rights implications and the policy aspects.”

The ‘Future of Technology and Institutional Governance in Identity Management’ sessions took place in May 2021 and were facilitated by representatives from organizations with varying relations with the identity private sector, such as ID4Africa, the Secure Identity Alliance, Access Now and Caribou Digital. The sessions were: “Ownership, control and management of legal identity systems and data”; “Digital vaccine certificates and the future role of health data in identity systems”; “Is the clock ticking for paper and plastic?”; “International identity data sharing and granting of access of foreign states to sovereign identity databases” and “Is there an ideal future national and international legal identity eco-system?”

The roundtable allowed for broad discussion on what identity and digital identity are and the legal frameworks required.

“Identity pre-exists law. This is materially evident in the fact that stateless people and people without legal identities exist,” says Natalie Smolenski, senior vice president, Business Development at Hyland Credentials. “We can think of law as a ‘social operating system’ that makes people visible and legible to the state. But, just like software, the legal operating system isn’t evenly distributed – which is why we are convening to discuss what to do about the hundreds of millions of people without legal identity.

“Law has limits. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if the legacy means of ensuring identity were universally adopted and working for everybody equally well.”

The world has changed significantly since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and even since the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed upon. People everywhere have a digital life which requires varying forms of identification. The roundtable examined the differences past, present and future between legal and digital identity or identities.

“Legal identity, in my perspective, is a tiny case of space of all identities that we could own and empower ourselves through these means,” states ID4Africa Executive Director Dr. Joseph Atick. “It doesn’t mean that legal identities are undermined by the multiplicity of the digital identity, it just means that there is no need that it would be universal.

“The context is so important, which is something all of you have been pushing for, which is saying – depending on who a person is interfacing with, different aspects of that persona could be presented, and therefore those could be different identities. The human is unique, but the representation doesn’t have to be.”

UNDP private sector engagement findings

The report summarizes the results of the discussions as a record of the UNDP and Legal Identity Task Force’s understanding of the digital ID private sector, its capabilities and outlook.

The sessions found that the birth certificate is still the gold standard for legal identity, the ultimate aim of the UN, and that there is no overall ‘ideal’ legal identity system. Participants stated that for digital identity systems, stakeholder engagement is essential as are public-private partnerships at a national level, especially in the Global South to ensure digital infrastructure and digital literacy is in place.

Legal identity should be unique, but digital identity does not have to be, according to the report. For both legal and digital systems, security, safety, inclusiveness and efficiency are essential. Both approaches have to be trustworthy.

Foundational identity is seen as a state responsibility among participants, although even this could permit citizens a degree of control and input on how it is used. In future, decentralized systems will allow a far greater degree of individual control. “Blockchain may be the strongest tool for identity becoming digital in terms of trust, but that transition will not occur in the short-to medium-term,” states the report.

The sense from the more than five pages of summary is that the private sector will play an increasingly important role in digital identity, especially if or when states move towards decentralization. While the UN’s mission is to achieve legal identity for all, as states are adopting digital identity in order to achieve that at a national level, the roundtable has given the Task Force a comprehensive overview of how the private sector is inextricably involved in progress towards legal identity.

“The private sector has a significant role to play in enabling government to rethink and understand in a different way, how they need to be able to manage legal identity,” argues Titi Akinsanmi, public policy lead for West and Francophone Africa at Google.

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