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Groups and motivations advocating for digital identity principles put under the microscope

Groups and motivations advocating for digital identity principles put under the microscope

What is the underlying worldview of groups proposing visions for “good” digital identity systems? An attempt to answer this question is offered up in a new study published by Cambridge University Press.

On the sociopolitical configurations of digital identity principles’ by Edgar A. Whitley and Emrys Schoemaker attempts to begin making clear where different groups are coming from, and why.

Identity is a major part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16.9, but Whitley and Schoemaker suggest that the prioritization of development differs between groups promoting digital identity and identification systems.

The World Bank explicitly focusses on the development impact of identity, while the World Economic Forum and ID2020 present development as one among several motivations for implementing identity systems, according to the study.

The paper takes up a call from Elizabeth Renieris in a 2021 paper on Ethiopia’s trial of a blockchain-based digital ID system for students. In the paper, Renieris argues that evaluations of digital identity systems should not be narrowly confined to their technical aspects.

“In particular it proposes an approach to better understand the implications of the imaginations and framings of digital identity principles with an emphasis on developmental contexts,” Whitley and Schoemaker write.

They refer to the social construction of meaning, citing academic heavyweights including Wittgenstein and Searle, and argue that the “technological frames, expectations, and imaginations and developmental discourse” together make up the sociopolitical configurations behind digital identity principles. While “neither good nor bad,” they say, these configurations should be examined to identify gaps and assumptions in their thinking.

The report then considers papers from the World Economic Forum and partners written in 2018, GSMA and partners written in 2016 and Access Now in late-2019.

The WEF paper notes that discussion around digital identities should be based on individuals, but also that digital ID systems can create value for business and governments. Its real-world examples, the study writers contend, are seen as primarily of value to the institutions holding digital ID databases.

The GSMA is about increasing value through the digital economy. Again, Whitley and Schoemaker write, institutions are prioritized, despite the framing of principles for “good” ID as being for individuals.

Access Now points out in its original “Why ID?” letter that evidence supporting the benefit of digital ID systems, such as the oft-cited expectation of GDP gains from digital identity in a McKinsey report, rests on other assumptions. Those assumptions, the document argues, tend to be left out when the support is called upon. The letter and subsequent papers from Access Now also emphasize the risk that the group says is introduced through the use of biometrics, particularly to identify populations which are already vulnerable.

The study makes the general observation that stakeholder groups tend to present their own objectives as aligned with others that have support from different stakeholder groups.

The study concludes that more analysis should be performed on how well the various objectives which digital identity is suggested to help meet align with each other, and the interests of stakeholders.

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