Every so often a headline pops up with alarming news about personal digital identity: startling data about online fraud and identity theft; the Russian, Chinese, or Australian governments coming out with new guidelines that don’t always respect the privacy of individuals they way they should; or a security failure in yet another system, such as Apple’s biometric identification for unlocking cell phones.
The alarms go off, intensifying our concerns about the security of our data and our right to privacy. We feel exposed and vulnerable. We wonder if we really need all that technology, after all, or if we are exposing ourselves to unnecessary risks just to make our daily lives a bit easier and more convenient, or because we crave instant gratification.
Our digital identity is already an inextricable part of our lives, as is the technology that allows us to manage it. But our perception of what is necessary can change from place to place. In most Western countries, we take for granted that we have an official identity, both real and digital, and we look at technology as a luxury, as something that makes our lives easier but is not absolutely necessary. In developing countries, on the other hand, having an official identity is often a luxury, as it enables people to prove who they are.
This is not simply a matter of being able to prove one’s identity, but also of being able to access everything that it implies, including education, healthcare, and the right to vote. In some places, being able to prove one’s identity can become a very serious matter, to the point of ensuring access to life-saving services.
And so the identity crisis is not as global as it may seen, when we take into account different perspectives. In some places, our worry is that someone will steal our identity or our data, or that governments or large corporations will violate our privacy. In others, the priority is to have an identity and to be able to prove it. And this is where technology plays an essential role.
The Sustainable Development Goal 16 project, promoted by the United Nations, is seeking to ensure that everyone has a legal form of identification by 2030. But why is this so important?
Currently, there are 1.5 billion people in the world who have no way to identify themselves; most of these are women and children in the most impoverished regions of the planet. In other words, they are precisely the groups that are most susceptible to abuse and neglect, and without identification they are also invisible.
It has also been estimated that 42% of women in developing countries lack a bank account because they cannot identify themselves and demonstrate who they are, and as a result they are deprived of financial independence.
Can technology help to solve situations such as these? The answer is yes. The first step is to move from paper-based systems to digital identification, using, for example, biometric recognition systems that can identify a person uniquely.
The nation of Nigeria is a perfect case in point. In 2003, when Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala assumed the position of Prime Minister of Finance, she faced the problem of “phantom pensioners”, false identities created by criminal organizations to claim payments and other benefits. In fact, the system was working so well for them that were able to retire as phantom workers and become phantom pensioners, taking advantage of their false identity for years.
The creation of a digitized identity verification system based on biometric technology, a project completed in 2015, made it possible not only to identify more than 65,000 phantom workers, but also to make thousands of people “appear”: people who until then had been invisible.
It is a fact that the digitization of identity and globalization, along with the democratization of technology, have increased certain risks; on-line fraud figures have been on the rise in recent years.
But we believe that the benefits of digital identity verification technologies outweigh those risks, and that the future will bring efforts to find a balance and a suitable regulatory framework for these technologies so that they can continue to advance while at the same time minimizing risks.
Digital identification does expose us, but at the same time it makes us visible, it protects us and, in a sense, it prevents us from becoming invisible in the real world. What we must work on now is setting the limits.