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‘Economic identity’: are digital ID schemes a ‘road to Hell?’ asks human rights report

‘Economic identity’: are digital ID schemes a ‘road to Hell?’ asks human rights report

Published as delegates left ID4Africa 2022 in Marrakesh, a new primer from the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University warns that the global approach to identity has changed so much in recent decades that international efforts could end up making life worse for those covered in digital ID schemes.

Paving a Digital Road to Hell? A Primer on the Role of the World Bank and Global Networks in Promoting Digital ID’ has two functions; to describe the route to the current situation of what it sees as ‘economic identity’ and to rally the human rights community and civil society to find ways to ensure that this global momentum towards digital ID does benefit rather than harm end-users.

“We believe that there is an urgent need to reframe research and contestation of digital ID systems as a global matter,” sets out the report. “Since many initiatives are shaped and supported by a global network of powerful proponents, the only way to effectively counter this confluence of interests and ideas, and to change outcomes, is through an equally global effort by the entire human rights ecosystem.”

The authors clarify that it is not necessarily the digital or biometric elements themselves that are problematic, but how and why such systems are brought in and managed.

The report brings together a vast amount of research to describe the evolution of the concept of ‘economic identity’ or ‘transactional identity’ – the idea that a digital identity (possibly backed via biometrics) is the accepted way to bring public and private services to the individual, and economic growth to a country in the process.

Rather than recognizing individuals’ rights via legal ID, the concern is that digital ID campaigns “focus on fueling digital transactions and transforming individuals into traceable data. They often ignore the ability of identification systems to recognize not only that an individual is unique, but that they have a legal status with associated rights.”

It charts the developments in international organizations, notably the World Bank, in accepting and then promoting the idea of the power of digital identity – while allegedly sidelining legal identity and civil registry – to become the accepted way to promote development.

“This implies our end goal in ID [for development] is not about digital identity,” said ID4Africa Executive Chair Dr. Joseph Atick at the opening of the movement’s recent summit in Marrakesh, “it is about building public infrastructure for governance and service delivery as frictionless, robust and respectful of people’s rights and liberties – including the right to have legal identity. This is our updated objective.”

The report finds that there must be a “more clearly developed notion of ‘who’ are the most relevant actors driving this agenda and ‘what’ are the key concepts that should be contested and reimagined,” which brings the focus on one particular organization: “Much can be learned about both the ‘who’ and ‘what’ by zooming in on the work of the World Bank Group, and more specifically its ID4D Initiative, as a central node in a more extensive global network of digital ID promotion.”

Although many organizations are covered, ID4D plays a key role: “By defining the problem as one of an ‘invisible billion’ who lack official identity, and presenting digital ID systems as inclusion and rights-enhancing solutions, it has provided legitimacy and a mandate for these systems.”

The primer tracks how the World Bank’s interest in identity for development began in 2014, beginning a pivot in the Bank’s activity away from civil registry and towards foundational ID, growing to $1.5 billion in funding.

Long-term interest by the global development community in India’s Aadhaar system is also chronicled, along with that system’s reported human rights catastrophes. The germ of the Aadhaar idea, to give individuals a unique identifier to create a transactional identity, has been adopted by other schemes.

“Unlike traditional systems of civil registration, such as birth registration, this new model of economic identity commonly sidesteps difficult questions about the legal status of those it registers.”

The authors repeat that there is a chronic lack of evidence for any benefits of digital ID systems, with any benefits assumed rather than proven.

“What can we in the human rights ecosystem meaningfully do, individually and collectively, to ensure that digital ID systems enhance, rather than jeopardize, the enjoyment of human rights?” ask the authors. “Is this even possible through digital ID systems?”

Labelled a ‘primer,’ the report is a valuable resource in bringing together a huge amount of research on the issues, the text being the tip of the rest of the iceberg made up of footnotes below.

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