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Advocates still see a lot of danger for individuals using government digital IDs

Advocates still see a lot of danger for individuals using government digital IDs

Devout advocates of digital IDs run the risk of overlooking some significant misuses and bungled security setups.

In principle, digital national ID cards and passports benefit individuals and economies, but the reality is much more nuanced and littered with dangerous developments.

One of the best examples is India’s horizon-to-horizon Aadhaar identity program. Pam Dixon, founder and executive director of advocacy non-profit the World Privacy Forum posted an article on the forum’s site touching on Aadhaar.

Dixon said the Indian central government saw Aadhaar accounts as an efficient method of delivering any number of digital services. But for some time after the program launched in the mid-2010s, it operated without bumpers.

“The lack of controls allowed abuses and significant function creep,” she writes.

Of course, the Indian example is also useful as a vision for how even a national ID plan as fundamentally flawed as Aadhaar could be largely rehabilitated. Dixon recounts how the national Supreme Court stepped in to strip non-core functions and outright abuses from the program.

The massive national ID project is still one of the largest human identification efforts ever, and problems still exist, but public trust and participation has risen along with dependable service delivery.

She offers brief profiles from around the world that indicate India’s U-turn is a rarity. Dangers for personally identifying information, individual liberty and trust in ID schemes abound.

China has the largest and most sophisticated national ID program and even if you set aside the political abuses that it makes possible, it cannot guarantee the safety of biometric data. Perhaps 800 million profiles were accessed in a single attack.

And many women of child-bearing age in the United States now are pulling back from visibility on and participation in any digital service that could lead to their arrest after the Supreme Court stripped them of the right to an abortion.

Her views are in line with three representatives of non-governmental organizations writing an opinion article for Al Jazeera, the Qatari state-owned global news service.

Their piece opens with the phrase no one anywhere or ever wants to hear: “Show me your papers.” The authors may have heard those words. Dorothy Mukasa is team leader at data privacy group Unwanted Witness Uganda. Liza Garcia is executive director of Foundation for Media Alternatives, Philippines. And Gus Hosein is executive director of Privacy International.

Whatever good that comes from national IDs, too many times they are shadowed by official incompetence and abuse.

Afghans are being identified, the authors claim, and persecuted with the help of personally identifying information stored in databases.

About 300,000 Philippine identification documents were leaked from a Covid relief portal, the trio writes.

In Pakistan, the national identification database is open to hundreds of government agencies and private businesses.

They do not believe in mandatory ID credentials, made possible by “dangerous technologies” and assigned to people.

“We need a more nuanced debate about the function of digital ID systems,” they write. Ultimately, they prefer to warn and not engage with options.

That is not to say warnings are out of line.

Take Nigeria, for example. The West African nation’s minister of digital economy is imploring state security departments to use data gathered by the government and industry.

Isa Pantami took the opportunity of International Identity Day to say government databases can and should be used to fight Nigeria’s multiple security threats, according to an article in the Voice of Nigeria.

The two databases in question are the National ID Management Commission’s digital ID program and the data found in phone SIM cards.

Pantami is quoted as saying “utilization has been highly insignificant.” At the same time, he wants all citizens to get a national ID. The two goals might interfere with each other.

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