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Bringing ethics into the discussion on digital identity

Governance frameworks provide concrete base on which to develop products
Bringing ethics into the discussion on digital identity

A panel at EIC 2024 addresses head-on a topic that lurks around the edges of many discussions of digital ID. Hosted by OpenID Foundation Director of Marketing Elizabeth Garber, “Human Rights by Design for a Fast-Changing World” features a host of panelists from the public and private sectors exchanging ideas about privacy and autonomy, how to protect digital identity, and how human rights needs to be central to the digital conversation.

“There’s a lot of ethics-washing happening in identity right now,” says Nishant Kaushik, CTO at digital security firm Uniken. “Because everyone is picking up on the buzz because of the rise of AI.” He notes that, while “human rights” have explicit documentation that developers can refer to, “ethics” is a much broader term that offers fewer practical guides for design. “With ethics, because it’s so contextual, it becomes hard to build that into a product.

Sanjay Dharwadker, digital identity expert for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), might argue that there are indeed foundational documents defining ethics. His talk cites Aristotle and Plato in bringing the discussion back to questions about ontology and epistemology.

“What is our knowledge, how do we end up defining ourselves?” he asks. Ultimately, he arrives at the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in particular its assertion in Article 6 that “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law,” which he notes has particular pertinence for identity and how it creates access.

Dr. Emrys Schoemaker, research director for Caribou Digital, asks, “How do the technologies we use everyday reinforce or contravene the things that we hold most important? Our values, our principles. Code is clearly a critical part of that. But there’s also an environment in which code lives.”

Schoemaker discusses digital public infrastructure that will enable wallets, and the larger digitization initiatives transforming the world. He quotes Kranzberg’s first law: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” Thus, he says, the importance of governance. He notes the UNDP’s model governance framework for legal digital identity systems, which he says considers elements of governance that sometimes don’t get factored in – “things like justice and equity, inclusion, accountability.”

“There’s a lot of engineering-first thinking” in digital ID, says Kaushik. “And with that engineering-first thinking comes very narrow views, driven from very narrow experiences. When you don’t recognize context, you end up with systems that are biased, not because of intention, but ignorance.” Values are not universal, the panelists note, and the ethics of digital identity and digital identity wallets will be as varied and complicated as the ethics of identity in general.

A 2023 report published by the OpenID Foundation advocates for a human-centric strategy in governing digital identity, and outlines five key pillars for governments to build on: human-centricity, strategic design and governance, secure and privacy-protecting identity systems and international interoperability.

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