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Sri Lanka’s digital identity transformation seeks balance of speed and assurance

Categories Biometrics News  |  ID for All  |  In Depth
Sri Lanka’s digital identity transformation seeks balance of speed and assurance

Sri Lanka is at the crossroads of a digital transformation. The journey ahead holds both opportunities and risks. The country’s national identity cards were introduced in 1973, but the paper-based system contained limited information about the individuals. Under the stewardship of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former Secretary of Defense, a digital ID card program began in 2012 with a target to finish enrolling fingerprint biometrics by mid-2017. In addition, IOM and Japan backed implementations of biometrics at ports of entry to control Sri Lanka’s borders. The Unique Digital Identity Project (SL-UDI) and DIGIECON 2030 initiatives are now driving the nation towards a technology and innovation-powered future. However, hidden between these ambitious programs are critical challenges that cannot be ignored.

Furthermore, challenges such as reported delays in the procurement process of SL-UDI and the complexity of implementing DIGIECON 2030 reveal uncertainty and potential roadblocks along the way. Additionally, partnerships with international entities like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) offer support and expose the country’s dependence on external aid for its digital aspirations. The collaboration with Indian companies has also raised concerns about data security and sovereignty, and Sri Lanka is waiting for clearance to implement the India-funded Unique ID card project. Sri Lanka can confront issues around infrastructure, regulation, and public trust if it navigates through this digital revolution successfully.


In April 2022, Sri Lanka launched the ambitious Unique Digital Identity Project SL-UDI to address inefficiencies caused by the lack of an accurate identity system. The project, spearheaded by the Ministry of Technology, intends to equip each individual with a National Unique Digital Identifier, thereby facilitating digital interactions and transactions. The project, which is being carried out in collaboration with India, receives major financial assistance. Furthermore, DIGIECON 2030, a comprehensive digital master plan and regulatory framework, marks an important milestone in Sri Lanka’s digital journey. It includes annual events and international conferences that highlight the government’s commitment to building an equitable digital economy. As a forerunner, DIGIECON 2023 will unveil a digital transformation strategy.

Research insights

Research conducted by Chanuka Wattegama, director of Sri Lanka’s ICT Agency, highlights Sri Lanka’s digital potential during the post-COVID-19 economic recovery. Sri Lanka’s digital economy, projected to be worth US$3.47 billion, is developing, with more than 60 percent of the population owning mobile phones and an increasing number of internet users. The ambition of Sri Lanka is to create a technology-driven society, with a concentration on digital governance, digital economy, and digital society. While Sri Lanka may not be able to compete immediately in artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles, it shows potential in e-commerce and fintech. The study underlines the need to incorporate effective international ways to meet digital economy goals.

According to research by M&C Saatchi World Services, understanding Sri Lanka’s identity and mobile landscape is important for digital identity solutions. But while the birth registration system has been very effective, birth certificates have remained analog posing a challenge. Even as NIC digitization is underway, it remains unavailable to certain groups such as tea estate workers and war widows. Mobile networks are promising and there is an extensive Know Your Customer (KYC) process for SIM card registration making the mobile landscape auspicious. Nevertheless, gender inequalities in smartphone ownership and use continue to be a major hindrance to digital inclusion. To ensure the successful implementation of digital identity systems, there is a need to leverage mobile agent networks while addressing privacy concerns. The study shapes the importance of inclusive digital identity solutions in bridging access divides and achieving fair access to services.

Strategic partnerships: India’s role in Sri Lanka’s digital revolution

According to Economynext, Sri Lanka’s State Technology Minister Kanaka Herath has highlighted concerns about the data privacy and protection of personal data of Sri Lankan citizens with Indian companies, citing delays in the India-funded digital ID card project. Minister Herath emphasized the need to address data security issues and obtain authorization from the Public Security Ministry before proceeding with the project. The initiative, which includes plans to collect biographic and biometric information for digital ID cards, has suffered delays due to tender disqualifications and ongoing discussions about data protection. Despite help from India and the formation of a Joint Project Monitoring Committee, the project’s future is uncertain, requiring cabinet approval and clearance from the Public Security Ministry. So, officials are waiting for their Public Security Ministry feedback, Herath said during a press briefing.

According to a Lankaweb report quoting Financial Express, India has given a vital financial enhancement to Sri Lanka’s SL-UDI project, with an advance payment of 450 million Indian rupees (roughly $5.4 million). The project seeks to gather biographic and biometric data including face, iris, and fingerprint information that are stored centrally for the issuance of standardized identification cards. Consequently, it should lead to an improvement in service delivery by the government while reducing poverty levels and enhancing financial inclusion opportunities. The SL-UDI project is one such initiative supported by the Government of India as a milestone marking this country’s digital journey arising out of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between two countries in March 2022.

MOSIP and the promise of digital ID ecosystems

Sri Lanka has also partnered with MOSIP to create its digital ID ecosystem. This collaboration, which began in October 2020, aims to create and implement a foundational digital ID system utilizing open-source software. Field registrations have begun following a successful Proof of Concept (PoC) presentation. MOSIP will help customize the platform to satisfy Sri Lanka’s digital ID requirements, with the ICTA playing a key role. The utilization of MOSIP’s modular architecture is expected to improve user experience, operational efficiency, and security.

The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce underlines Sri Lanka’s urgent need to develop its digital ID system, emphasizing its critical role in economic recovery and global competitiveness. Industry associations such as FITIS and SLASSCOM share this perspective, emphasizing the benefits of digital identity in supporting growth, avoiding fraud, and increasing efficiencies. However, subsequent setbacks, such as procurement concerns, have hampered progress.

World Bank and ADB’s Support in Sri Lanka’s digital transformation

The World Bank Blog highlights Sri Lanka’s digital transformation journey, amidst the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Modernizing service delivery is being piloted by initiatives of the government through the Information and Communication Technology Agency ICTA. Sri Lanka aims to digitize administrative processes across Divisional Secretariats utilizing cloud-based platforms and support from the World Bank’s Contingency Emergency Response Component (CERC). Such a move to more technology-enabled governance can improve efficiency but also enables remote working systems, enhances the resilience of public services, and ensures data security. With a vision for an ICT-powered society, Sri Lanka has prioritized implementing foundational digital ID systems as well as the development of other infrastructure for inclusion growth that empowers its citizens. The ADB supports Sri Lanka’s digitalization efforts under its new country partnership strategy. To enable this transition towards modern times; ADB is ready to provide some capacity building and advisory services towards promoting digitalization specifically within public financial management, good governance, and private sector development among others. This will help improve the country’s digital infrastructure, enhance digital literacy, and promote the adoption of digital technologies, ultimately contributing to Sri Lanka’s unique digital identity program.

Although Sri Lanka’s digital transformation has faced some difficulties and delays, it is picking up speed. The development of the Electronic National Identity Card (eNIC) since 2015, regulates the current biometric identity system.  However, ongoing projects like SL-UDI and DIGIECON 2030, show that the country wants to develop its digital identity infrastructure. Although there are still obstacles to this such as procurement issues and data security concerns, the laid groundwork for information systems and developed links indicate a movement towards a digitally inclusive society. Therefore, by overcoming these hurdles, Sri Lanka can open up new avenues of growth driven by smart digital solutions leading to more empowered citizens and an improved economy.

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