Inclusion in Digital Identity Products

by Christine Martin

I’m currently a member of the Trust Over IP Foundation SSI harms task force, where we’re working to produce a white paper examining the design features of digital ID systems. This short post aims to identify some of the harms and disadvantages SSI introduces and how inclusion in digital identity products mitigate those harms.

Over 1 Billion People Worldwide Lack Legal ID

Today about 50% of the world’s population uses the internet, and according to the World Bank, over one billion (10%) people worldwide lack some form of legal ID, and even more, they don’t have a digital trail, excluding them from participating in the digital economy. Furthermore, there are divides within; 60% of those people live in lower and middle-income countries, 50% are in sub-Saharan Africa, and about 40% of the women in lower-income countries don’t have access to Identity. Inclusion in identity product and process design is necessary to enable economic growth and financial inclusion for excluded demographics. We need to prioritize inclusion to avoid exacerbating some of the existing divides. 

I joined this task force because I wanted to learn more about how SSI and identity products can be harmful to people. Concequently, I didn’t realize how much damage these products can do, but now I am more aware of the dangers. I am committed to doing what I can to help mitigate these harms, but I also recognize that I still have a lot to learn and work to do. Hopefully, the SSI harms task force can create a meaningful white paper that will be applied by organizations and governments building frameworks worldwide.

What Does Digital Identity Mean? 

Digital ID can provide an electronic version of trusted government identification. It offers better security and more robust privacy and can be stored securely on smartphones and other digital devices. Governments and organizations worldwide are developing digital identity frameworks enabling people and businesses to prove their identities online and in person, offering more effortless ways to access online services.

These frameworks, designed with the concept of each individual having their own unique, verifiable credentials, will allow individuals to sign up for programs, file taxes, and more. As a result, Digital id will enable users to retain control over their data and share it with organizations according to their discretion. Additionally, this will help safeguard people’s personal information by reducing the likelihood of fraud and identity theft.

Good digital identity is convenient, secure, and private. It should be convenient to use so that people can access government services and information online without visiting a physical office. It’s secure, using distributed ledger technology to protect user data. Finally, it’s private, allowing users to share only the information they want.

Why do Frameworks Need to be Inclusive?

Digital identity frameworks aim to create a standard for verification and authenticating identities in a digital space. Frameworks must be inclusive to be effective. Inclusion is key to creating system that allows people to prove their identities without having to reveal too much personal information. An inclusive framework will also help combat fraud and identity theft while making it easier to access services and goods online safely and securely.

There is a proliferation of digital identity frameworks in development worldwide. Indeed, eIDAS from the European Union and DIACC from Canada are the most notable. These frameworks are essential for enabling secure online interactions. However, a critical flaw of many current frameworks is that they are not inclusive, which can lead to many negative consequences.

One of the key benefits of the digital identity ecosystem is that it can help reduce online fraud. However, if the framework is not inclusive, it can increase fraud and discrimination. For example, if identifying documents include a strict gender (or “sex”) marker, it can prevent transgender people from accessing essential services. More importantly, this categorization creates a basis for discrimination and inequality.

In addition, exclusionary digital identity frameworks can limit social and economic opportunities. For example, suppose a digital identity framework does not allow for the use of alternative identities (i.e. passport from another country). In that case, it can prevent marginalized groups from participating in the online economy. 

Ultimately, inclusive digital identity frameworks are essential for enabling secure and efficient online interactions for all members of society.

When Frameworks Fail

While providing many benefits, digital IDs can create exclusionary effects if not implemented properly. The Aadhaar program in India, despite its success, is still plagued with technical failures and exclusions. Evidence shows that compulsory biometric authentication for the public food distribution system leads to exclusion problems and increased transaction costs. Many residents have been unable to access their IDs once issued. Widowed mothers with children and the elderly who couldn’t pass authentication could not access social services or the public food distribution system. These failures can stem from anything by not being able to input your fingerprint or misplacing the ID number. All situations leave residents, especially vulnerable groups, unable to access essential social services. Consider that Aadhaar was initially created to increase inclusion, and things become a bit more confusing. 

Biometric authentication has also raised privacy and data misuse concerns. India has faced significant pushback against biometric national ID systems due to concerns regarding safety and misuse of collected data. Children below the age of 5 were issued Aadhar numbers with their parents’ biometric data. This caused cases where different residents were given Aadhaar numbers with the same biometric data. Subsequently exposing flaws in the process and issuance of Aadhaars on faulty biometrics and documents. In light of this, it is crucial to ensure that solid data privacy and security frameworks and systems are in place.

There are pros and cons to implementing digital ID requirements. It can reduce corruption and ensure that only those who should be benefitting from a program do. Yet, it can also create exclusion problems for vulnerable groups and increase transaction costs. Below are a few great stories highlighting the importance of inclusive identity frameworks.

How Can We Ensure Inclusiveness? 

Ensuring inclusion in digital identity products means taking a human-centred design approach. When designing a new product, it’s essential to think about the people using it. They should be your focus when creating product. Too often, designers focus on the technology or the business case without considering the people using the product.

Dr. Usha Ramanathan points out in CoinDesk’s Money Reimagined that the well-off tech guys wanted to produce technology for the poor in India. However, the tech guys don’t know what it’s like to live in poverty. In the name of providing identity to people, the tech guys wanted to create technology for the poor that would, in turn, control their lives. There were claims that the poor lacked access to identity documents and couldn’t get welfare, but this was untrue. Dr. Ramanathan notes that less than 1% of the population lacked identity documents, so these claims were just an excuse for the project.

It’s about designing for people from different cultures and with different needs by people in those same groups. This includes people with different economic backgrounds, gender identities and sexual orientations. Digital Identity inclusiveness is about creating a product everyone can use, regardless of background or abilities. We all need to work together. 

Conclusion

Inclusivity is vital in all areas of life, including digital identity products. By including everyone in the development process, we can create products that work for everyone. This article discusses the importance of inclusion and provides ways to ensure everyone is involved in developing digital identity products. We must include the most vulnerable in the systems the privileged use daily.

IDs are taken for granted by those who have them. But lack of identification creates barriers for each individual affected and for the countries they live in.

Makhtar Diop

Vice President for Infrastructure, World Bank

Input from many people from diverse backgrounds is essential to our work on the SSI Harm’s Task Force. I hope you’ll consider joining us – whether you want to contribute or just observe, everyone is welcome!

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