By Ananya Singh
There is a growing emphasis on establishing identification systems across the world. The importance of a legal identity is inescapable today. Governments are heavily investing in national identity systems in keeping with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 16.9) of providing “legal identity for all including free birth registrations” by 2030. With the rise of technology and information systems, this legal identity is rapidly turning digital.
The complexity of digital identities meant for greater inclusion can be understood by the various risks surrounding such systems. Invasion of one’s privacy, subsequent exploitation and totalitarian control are certain visible concerns when exploring the extreme tenets of a digital identity. Analysing the significance of such identities in fostering national development, a recent report published by the University of Exeter highlights key conditions for successful implementation.
Understanding personal and legal identity
What sets us apart in a crowd, in the eyes of the law, is the “distinct and unique” legal identity we possess. Legal identity refers to the “recognition of a person’s existence before the law, facilitating the realisation of specific rights and corresponding duties“. Our identities are determined based on three factors:
- Factual information including our name, age and gender
- Biological information such as our fingerprints, iris scan and DNA sequence included in biometric data
- The social and economic context of our lives that encompass our daily routines, significant events and behavioural attributes
This data is collected and analysed based on our digital footprints. Since the digital sphere shapes much of our lives today, there is a vast amount of data for information systems and thereby the government to collate and use for verification purposes.
However, keeping in mind the complexity and multifaceted nature of human beings, is it possible to have one identity for the rest of our lives? As the report suggests, our identities are an ever-changing phenomenon that alters based on context, life events, time and place. Thus, it follows that for the law to recognise our very existence, a legal identity and proof of the same is essential. Legal identities allow us to access a range of social benefits, economic schemes and liberties available to a citizen.
Who are the invisible members of a nation?
While the current measure for a legal identity as per the UN is a birth certificate, standards for verification of an individual differ across regions.
The ID2020 Alliance is a global partnership that aims to extend state protection to all undocumented people by providing identities. According to the ID2020 Alliance report, “Over one billion people, including many millions of children, women and refugees, globally lack any form of officially recognized identification. Without an identity, individuals are often invisible—unable to vote, access healthcare, open a bank account, or receive an education—and bear a higher risk for trafficking. Without accurate population data, public and private organizations struggle to broadly and accurately deliver the most basic human services.”
Loopholes of a national identification system
While a legal identity is taken for granted in established nations, in other regions it is often a luxury one can ill afford. Legal identities empower people, by investing in them the authority to claim their rights as citizens of a state. It is an imperative criterion for accessing resources and allows for public participation, an essential component of any democracy.
With growing emphasis on inclusive policies, the global need for streamlined verification systems is accepted. However, possessing a legal identity does not make one immune to various risks attached. For one, a formal identity may further subject citizens to exclusion and discriminatory practices. The report cites examples such as the Rwandese Genocide in 1994 to illustrate how identities may further marginalise communities.
A legal identity can pose hurdles to the objective of inclusion. Verification systems increasingly rely on biometric data. However, fingerprints, a significant constituent of such data, changes over time and with age. The elderly and children stand to be excluded from social benefits due to non-recognition by computer systems. Further, manual labour coarsens and thereby changes or erases fingerprints, thus excluding another section of the population. This is a prominent counter-point to the UIDAI and Aadhaar verification in India.
If governments do not recognise this issue and make arrangements to ensure supplementary provisions apart from reliance on biometric data, then such systems could hamper inclusion, which is the very objective of the mechanism in the first place.
Consolidated data on any individual for identification purposes will include details from biometrics to behavioural attributes. Such a vast body of information at the hands of the state may cause citizens to be vulnerable to totalitarianism and complete state control.
Legal identification systems could further annihilate a country’s informal economies. As the report states, people residing in a nation are assumed to be its citizens. As such, introducing a legal identity into the narrative will force undocumented people to be considered non-citizens. It will alienate a section of the population from the state’s protection. According to international organisations’ research, this exclusion will impact people that require the state’s protection the most, including impoverished women and children, refugees, victims of human trafficking etc.
The right to privacy
Another prominent issue is that of privacy. As a human being, one is entitled to a private life. An individual should have the right to decide the information they want to share as part of their identity. Setting up identification systems is therefore, much more complex than it may seem. For respecting one’s right to privacy, a state will have to ensure the framework of guidelines governing their verification systems are sound. Another complication to bear in mind is the convergence of international and domestic regulations when implementing such systems.
How to improve implementation?
Investment in national identity systems has been steadily increasing across the world, more so in developing nations. According to the report, most systems rely on biometric data for this purpose, leading to an unprecedented growth of the biometrics industry. Between 2005-10, the industry grew 28% per annum, while in developing nations it grew by as much as 34%.
The report correlates efficient identification with increased economic growth, public participation and social development. However, as usual, while policies may be in place, implementation rates are failing and growth is erratic. The political dream of inclusive societies hangs on the delicate thread of effective implementation.
The report suggests a person-centric, user engagement model of designing, building and implementing national identity systems. It also recommends a cross-disciplinary approach for improved efficiency. Pooling in resources by consulting experts from various fields will enable the government to construct a strong identification system with a positive impact on beneficiaries.
Joining forces with the private sector
It is common knowledge that technology giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon collect information on an individual, gleaned from online profiles, internet searches, calls, transactions etc. They have a large collection of data that enables them to better understand a person’s attitudes and requirements. Such companies function according to a business model that focuses on collecting data (which includes behavioural attributes) and subsequently using the information to predict needs, wants and purchasing habits of customers. This enables them to further design their products and services as per the predetermined future demands of a consumer.
In today’s digital environment, private firms are themselves reliant on digital identity systems for service provision. As such, the report suggests a public-private partnership to be a lucrative option when setting up national identity systems. The high costs of the software required for constructing such systems can be cut if governments tap into the large database of information already available with many companies.
Countries possessing strong systems will have a better framework of guidelines to protect an individual’s privacy and prevent companies from exploiting them. However, in developing countries, where digital identity systems are still a new concept, technology giants have been functioning on their own system of regulations. Innovation in digital identity systems is further seen to be fairly missing in emerging economies.
As such, while governments can explore opportunities to partner with corporates, they must ensure a policy framework that limits a corporation’s use of behavioural data for identification and verification purposes only, in turn protecting citizens’ privacy.
Complications litter the path to inclusion
The report therefore, emphasises on three interconnecting, yet distinctive aspects of global inclusion. First is an individual’s ‘legal identity’, which is a fundamental human right. Second, the state set-up ‘national identification system’, that will enable verification and whether to allow or deny citizens their rights. Finally, the concept of ‘personal autonomy’, embedded in the right to privacy awarded to each citizen, which allows individuals to decide whether they are willing to share information pertaining to their identity.
Bearing in mind the complicated fabric of identification systems, a policy framework that strikes a seamless balance between the above three is the need of the hour. Resilient, well-guided identity systems, lawful implementation that respect one’s right to privacy and constant innovation are key to ensuring economic and social inclusion on a global scale.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
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