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Digital identities: Issues and cases

Published on 21 January 2019
Updated on 05 April 2024

Low and middle income countries are rolling out sophisticated digital identification systems. Will they be a panacea for social and economic inclusion, or are they another way to control people’s personal information? 

For generations, people in the global south acquired identity culturally. In some places, children get their first identity during their naming ceremony while others acquire their permanent names after initiation rites. In modern states, individuals take state identification in order to access government services such as passports, social welfare, and higher education. State-backed identification is integral to accessing services provided by non-state actors. 

For example, those without identification documents cannot access banking services. New digital means of identification, such as mobile phone numbers, are expanding traditional notions of financial inclusion. Under the World Bank’s Identity for Development (ID4D) low and middle income countries are rolling out nationwide digital identification systems.

Demand for identification services is on the rise. This is partly driven by the aspiration to account for every person on Earth under the sustainable development goals (SDGs) as reflected in the theme ‘leave no one behind’. But a gap has been identified in delivering the SDGs: Over half of the world’s population, found in the global south, is not identified. 

What are digital identities for?

Identification can assist states better plan for their needs. With the interconnectedness provided by digital technologies, states can analyse identified individuals, anticipate their needs, and apply available resources to meet those needs most efficiently. Coupled with developments such as mobile telephony and digital footprint tracking, states can also build comprehensive profiles on the social, political, and economic behaviours of their people. Such information can be applied in planning for future generations, designing disaster and emergency response, and building new economic activities. The same information could also be used for political manipulation, stifling of expression, exclusion of dissenters, and other similar motives.

The issues around digital identities

Digital ID can take different forms, with governments choosing the extent to which to consolidate data about each person. Kenya is integrating its numerous state and private identification databases to improve efficiency in delivering services that depend on identification. India is creating the world’s largest identification registry, Aadhar, that targets identifying previously unidentified populations. In China, state-issued smart cards record and analyse a person’s entire relationship with the government by tracking every transaction an individual has with the state. This is used to build the person’s social credit. This model is also referred to as ‘a single source of truth’. A recent investigation revealed that Venezuela’s new smart card (carnet de la patria, or ‘fatherland card’) was inspired by the Chinese model.

For this project, Venezuela is receiving technical assistance from Chinese mobile operator ZTE. This has raised concerns with US lawmakers who have petitioned the US government to establish whether ZTE has breached export controls and sanctions laws which prohibit exportation of goods and services that undermine democracy.

If not designed carefully, digital ID programmes can create databases that may easily abrogate a citizen’s rights to informational privacy and autonomy. They are designed to centralise data collection and analysis, increasing the risk of misuse of the data, for example in unwarranted surveillance. Where data design and collection is flawed, sections of citizens (most often the marginalised groups) are excluded from the databases and consequential services. The single source of truth model calls for extensive data collection and for the various databases to be interconnected, contrary to  responsible data-sharing practices. The problem is compounded when a country does not have a data protection framework.

Aadhar has been challenged regarding data sharing. Even with a supreme court order prohibiting the linking of Aadhar data with the voters register, investigators recently found that India’s electoral commission still accessed and related the two registers.

The need for safeguards

Human rights advocates describe these digital ID programmes as latent tools for state surveillance. Without safeguards, states can abuse the vast knowledge acquired from the collection of citizens data through information controls. Vulnerable populations such as refugees and those in need of social services from authorities may also be misrepresented in the digital registries, in effect deepening existing inequalities. How then can we ensure that digital identity promotes common good and protects individuals and groups from harm?

One solution is through shifting the power in digital identification from the authorities to the person. This can be achieved in part through people-centric data protection frameworks that guarantee protection of the right to privacy, promote responsible data sharing, and ensure information security. Research on autonomy promoting digital identity is underway.

When it comes to the problems associated with platforms storing large amounts of identification information, one of the explored solutions relates to a self-sovereign identity (SSI) approach. Under SSI, individuals store their own digital identification in virtual wallets and produce this identification at their own discretion as they navigate online spaces. SSI is a departure from a centralised storage of data. Once a user acquires SSI, they are solely responsible for choosing where to use their digital identification. SSI is based on principles of control, access, transparency, persistence, portability, interoperability, consent, minimisation, and user protection.

Wherever applied, digital ID converges with the organisation of society. As proponents of the SDGs support the adoption of these systems, they ought to also promote digital ID models that facilitate the flourishing of society and are in line with human rights.


*Originally published in Issue 36 – November of the Geneva Digital Watch newsletter. The January issue will be out next week.


1 reply
  1. Ginger Paque
    Ginger Paque says:

    Venezuela offers an excellent example
    Thanks for this very important post, Grace. You are right to include Venezuela as an example of how smart ID’s can be used for social control. A bit more context about the implications of this project finally having been implemented can be read at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-zte-specialreport/special-report-how-zte-helps-venezuela-create-china-style-social-control-idUSKCN1NJ1TT?fbclid=IwAR3o-74OxBfdjXR1PJML40EIwK9bpH_9OTSBRI7uh03b3tA9aKu5lX0A81U

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