The World Bank and its partners claim that “investing in digital ID systems is paving the road to an equitable digital future.” But instead “they may well be paving a digital road to hell.”
Governments around the world are quickly but quietly designing, assembling and piloting digital identity systems, often with biometric components. They include the European Union, which itself comprises 27 member countries, the UK, Australia, Canada and dozens of countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The spread of these systems across the Global South is being spurred by a new development consensus that asserts that digital identification can foster inclusive and sustainable development and is a prerequisite for the realization of human rights.
As the World Bank noted in 2017, over 1.1 billion people in the world are unable to prove their identity and therefore lack access to vital services including healthcare, social protection, education and finance. Most live in Africa and Asia and more than a third of them are children. In an ostensible bid to address this problem, the World Bank launched the Identification for Development (ID4D) program in 2014 with “catalytic contributions” from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the governments of the UK, France, Norway and the Omidyar Network.
A Dangerous New Road
The program provides loans to help countries in the Global South “realize the transformational potential of digital identity,” and has been rolled out in dozens of countries, mainly in Africa but also in Asia and Latin America. The program is wrapped up in cosy buzz words such as “digital development” and “financial inclusion”, but it has led to the promotion of a dangerous new approach to digital identity systems. That’s the damning conclusion of a new 100-page study by the NYU School of Law’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ), titled Paving the Digital Road to Hell: A Primer on the Role of the World Bank and Global Networks in Promoting Digital ID:
Through the embrace of digital technologies, the World Bank and a broader global network of actors has been promoting a new paradigm for ID systems that prioritizes what we refer to as ‘economic identity.’ These systems focus on fueling digital transactions and transforming individuals into traceable data. They often ignore the ability of identification systems to recognize not only that an individual is unique, but that they have a legal status with associated rights.
Still, proponents have cloaked this new paradigm in the language of human rights and inclusion, arguing that such systems will help to achieve multiple Sustainable Development Goals. Like physical roads, national digital identification systems with biometric components (digital ID systems) are presented as the public infrastructure of the digital future…
The problem, notes the paper, is that this emerging infrastructure has “been linked to severe and large-scale human rights violations in a range of countries around the world, affecting social, civil, and political rights.” What’s more, the benefits remain “ill-defined and poorly documented”:
Those who stand to benefit the most may not be those “left behind,” but a small group of companies and security-minded governments. The World Bank and the network argue that investing in digital ID systems is paving the road to an equitable digital future. But, despite undoubted good intentions on the part of some, they may well be paving a digital road to hell.
Three Core Functions of Digital ID
The report identifies three core functions of digital identity: identification (“the process of establishing the identity of an individual”); authentication (“the process of asserting an identity previously established during identification”) and lastly, authorization (“the process of determining which actions may be performed or services accessed on the basis of asserted and authenticated identity”).
The report’s authors are well positioned to comment on digital identity programs having participated in global policy discussions around digital ID, including in public consultations and events with the World Bank and its ID4D Initiative as well as with other international organizations, governments, foundations, and private technology vendors. The project team members have jointly organized workshops with civil society organizations (CSOs) to discuss the impact of digital ID systems on human rights across the African continent. They have also taught on the subject in law school courses as well as partnered with national human rights organizations to research specific digital ID systems.
Digital identity programs have the potential to impact a cross-section of basic human rights including the right to food, the right to health, the right to privacy and data protection, the right to equal treatment and protection from discrimination, the right to dignity, the right to free expression and association, the right to education, the right to freedom of movement and the right to housing. Based on their research, the CHRGJ’s project team lists a litany of ways in which digital ID systems can infringe on basic human rights:
One thing is clear about digital ID systems: they can lead to serious human rights problems and are prone to implementation failure. Even those promoting the identification for development agenda acknowledge these significant risks. However, the gathering of evidence and monitoring of human rights impacts remains sorely lacking. Documenting these impacts has often fallen to activists, journalists, and researchers—including our own project.
In India, the significant impacts of Aadhaar on people living in poverty only became known through the efforts of scholars, journalists, and civil society organizations. This patchwork of evidence has shown that digital ID systems can lead to a wide range of urgent human rights issues, including but not limited to: the violation of the right to nationality; limiting access to health care, food, and social security; a multitude of concerns about privacy and data protection, surveillance, and cybersecurity; and fundamental changes to models of democracy, participation, and citizen-state relationships. The human rights consequences can be severe and irreversible. In India, for instance, exclusion from the Aadhaar system has resulted in numerous starvation deaths and countless other examples of deprivation, exclusion, and harm.
Some of these negative impacts are not necessarily linked to the digital aspects of such systems, but instead are manifestations of underlying dynamics of social exclusion, economic inequality, and marginalization. Any form of identification system has the potential to be used in beneficial and harmful ways. Digitalized identification systems may alter or augment these effects and can also reverse hard-won progress on human rights.
Still other negative impacts appear to result directly from the introduction of new digital technologies and new forms of ID system design and implementation. This includes the use of digitized biometrics, as well as the concentration or centralization of data to be used in platforms for public and private use. At the most basic level, for instance, the widespread use of biometrics creates new dependencies on Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and electrical infrastructures, which may often be lacking.
Many new or upgraded digital systems are also designed in ways that encourage function creep, as they are intended to be used for multiple purposes that are unforeseen when the system is first designed. This means that harm can quickly spread and intensify, as digital ID systems become insurmountable barriers to a wide range of services and rights.
We saw a perfect example of this in action a couple of weeks ago when local authorities in Central China used the country’s COVID-19 health app to prevent account holders from seeking access to funds that had been frozen by their banks. According to Asia Times, more than 400,000 depositors of six rural banks in Henan Province have been unable to withdraw their money since April. Yet when some of those depositors tried to travel to the banks’ headquarters on Monday 12 to take part in protests, they suddenly found that the health code on their app had turned red, making them ineligible for travel.
As I warn in my book, Scanned: Why Vaccine Passports and Digital Identity Will Mean the End of Privacy and Personal Freedom, once vaccine passport and digital identity systems are established, mission creep is all but guaranteed…
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