Thea Anderson
Director, Beneficial Technology
&
Subhashish Bhadra
Principal, Beneficial Technology

Open Questions on Good ID: When should Digital ID be Avoided?

October 3, 2019

We aspire for all ID to be Good ID, but we also know that journey includes obstacles and requires more learning, given the nascent sector. We are committed to collaboration with other Good ID champions as well as constructive critics who want to help answer the difficult questions and find innovative solutions. In this new series, we will tackle open questions, one at a time, to share our perspective and invite others to offer theirs — all with the goal of adding more clarity on Good ID and finding the ideas that will move Good ID into practice.

In recent months, we’ve seen a thread of debate about the value of government-issued, digital ID grow among the public as well as some consumer and data protection advocates. The conversation is catalyzed by the growing interest by governments to introduce new or transition existing programs from analog records to digital systems. Many people, especially those excluded from the decision-making process, are asking fundamental questions like “Why must we have a digital ID?”, especially when the value proposition to the public is unclear, the government motives are opaque, and the risks appear high. We welcome this type of debate as it signals that both residents and civil society organizations are becoming more engaged in these complex, national issues. It also means that country has a better chance of achieving Good ID.

Earlier this year, Omidyar Network published its point of view on Good ID. We introduced the Good ID approach to help ensure that all new and existing identity systems – whether digital or analog – become more empowering and safe for individuals. We stressed that ID systems must be understood and trusted by the public to meet this mark. But there is no requirement that ID must be digital to be considered Good ID. In fact, there can be scenarios in which the best approach is not to require individuals to use a digital identity.

For example, in contexts where there are no checks and balances in place, the risks of digital identity can far outweigh any possible future gain. We do not recommend the introduction of a new digital ID if the system is designed to exclude, discriminate, spy on, control, or to amplify social tensions within a country, or where such a possibility is imminent.

Examining the purpose of digital ID

In an earlier post, we listed “defining the purpose” as the first consequential decision a government can make about its ID program. We caution against making the decision to introduce a new, digital ID through a narrow techno-economic lens of cost-benefit analysis. Identification systems do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they enter and reflect the complex and evolving political economy, web of histories, traditions, and power and information dynamics. Any changes to an ID system can magnify, reduce, or shift pre-existing societal forces like racism, economic inequity, and gender bias. And digital ID can make those changes more immediate and widespread, simply through the power of technology.

Instead, we encourage a transparent process, including a diverse group of stakeholders, to examine all of the potential ID options and impact scenarios before arriving at the system’s purpose and determining a digital element is necessary. Civil society organizations must play a central role in this analysis and debate to ensure any decision is informed by independent perspectives on emerging socio-political dynamics not just the latest technology trends or political goals. States are dynamic institutions, and the democratic societies of today can be the authoritarian regimes of tomorrow, or vice-versa. Researchers, lawyers, and advocates have a unique ability to represent the public’s interests, understand socio-political undercurrents on which an ID system is designed, and recommend public-serving alternatives and protections, if appropriate.

Naturally, each country’s context is unique and involves subjective interpretation of the risks and benefits. In addition to open, systematic, and sustained conversation, we need a holistic framework so that stakeholders can fully examine the underlying issues driving any changes to an ID system, the current socio-political context of the country, the legitimacy of its existing government, and the state’s relationship with its citizens (plus current and future residents). Shared tools could help local decision-makers rapidly and objectively identify high-risk situations that need immediate and careful attention as well as to provide a catalog of thoughtful Good ID remedies they can adapt and propose in their country.

To kick-start the co-creation of these criterion and resources, below are some scenarios in which we believe it would be unwise to introduce or promote a new digital identity:

  • An unchallenged and authoritarian government may depend on the identification and suppression of dissenters to maintain control. It is unlikely that a new digital identity system in that context would ensure individual privacy, personal agency, and transparency because that could threaten the ruling party’s very existence.
  • Similarly, a country that suppresses the voice and participation of a marginalized group is unlikely to build a digital identity system that includes that group fairly. In this context, digital identity could become another tool in the long-standing oppression of minority rights.
  • Moreover, individuals in countries that lack rule of law and data protection policies are unlikely to experience meaningful recourse for grievances and government accountability for harms that could result in the use of a digital ID.
  • Finally, countries going through protracted political instability might set aside security and find reason to use digital identity information to distribute power through undemocratic means.

What criteria would you suggest to help stakeholders – especially local residents, nonprofits, and government agencies – determine when it would be best to avoid or postpone the introduction of a new digital ID? When, if ever, do the benefits of digital ID outweigh the risks?

Brass tacks

We believe access to an issued, legally-recognized ID is a human right and governments have a duty to provide this for both citizens and residents, in a form that best empowers and safeguards them. Many states use digital means of enrollment and authentication to issue an identification for legitimate purposes, including to denote citizenship or legal permission to drive as well as to deliver a range of public services, such as health care, elections, or social safety nets. Digital ID is often prioritized over other alternatives because governments wish to scale the system quickly, prevent duplication and errors, connect to other digital systems, and otherwise leverage technology. These are not bad reasons to pursue a digital ID system. However, we do not believe Good ID is possible when: 

  • other goals take precedence over serving the needs of people whose identities form the system
  • the public does not understand or support the change
  • a system fails to unlock opportunities fairly, enable everyone to engage in society on their own terms, and safeguard people’s identities against misuse

In these moments, it’s important to ask the question “Is digital ID the best choice?” and to work across sectors to build a system that works for everyone.

Please help unlock the full potential of Good ID by sharing your learning, viewpoints, projects, events, and other resources on the Good ID online platform —  www.good-id.org and @GoodID.

You can also read the other posts in the “Open Questions on Good ID” series here.

 

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