Nearly one billion people on earth lack any form of widely recognized identity.
Let me say that again…a billion people! Looked at another way, that is one person in eight alive today living without any official record of their existence.
These individuals are mostly women and children, the majority are poor, and many are refugees or displaced persons. Their status — or rather, lack of official status — represents a constant barrier to participation in modern social, economic, and political life.
Many of us are lucky enough to live in countries where we have multiple forms of ID; a driver’s license or transit pass, which enables us to get where we need to go, a work ID to access our place of employment, credit or debit cards to make purchases, health ID cards to receive medical care, logins to access our work, financial, and social media accounts, and more. We use them without thinking about it and generally take them for granted.
But, if you want to get a sense of what life is like without a formal identity, try leaving all your forms of ID at home for one day. It will open your eyes.
If you are lucky, you will make it to work without being pulled over by a police officer (caution: your day is likely to get much worse if you do). Without carrying a driver's license, you will probably be looking over your shoulder and driving more slowly and carefully, experiencing — though to a lesser degree — the fear and uncertainty that those without ID experience on a daily basis, across all of their activities. You may return home hungry because you were unable to pay for lunch, or do any of the other activities that require a credit card. And, hopefully, the security guard in the lobby recognizes you — or can call someone to admit you — otherwise, you might be heading home early to “work remotely.”
Seriously… try a day of not using any form ID to recognize just how much you depend on it.
Digital ID can be a powerful tool that both empowers individuals and protects their basic human rights and civil liberties.
Those who lack an official identity find it difficult or impossible to access basic services, such as education, employment, health care, and financial services. They are unable to exercise their rights as citizens and voters and participate in the modern economy. Giving these individuals an official identity unlocks countless opportunities.
Article Six of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” Adopted in 1948, the Declaration defines a variety of rights to which we are all entitled; equal treatment before the law, dignity, nationality, privacy, education, mobility, and more. Being able to prove one’s identity is fundamental to the full exercise of these rights.
In 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 16.9) established a target of providing legal identity for all, including birth registration, by 2030. The UN, World Bank, and nations around the world have made admirable progress toward closing the “identity gap.” In a recent Biometric Update 16.9 Podcast, UNDP’s Niall McCann predicted that, by 2025, 350 million more people will have a recognized form of identity. This would be a remarkable accomplishment. But, from our perspective, closing the identity gap is necessary, but, ultimately, insufficient.
The world would be a simpler place if having an ID guaranteed these rights. Of course, it doesn’t. For some individuals who do have an ID — religious and ethnic minorities, political dissidents, for example — relying on a national ID system can have the opposite effect, making them more susceptible to exclusion, oppression, and persecution. For these individuals, alternative forms of ID are necessary to ensure that their rights — and, in some cases, their lives — are protected.
Done properly, “good ID” can help address both challenges, offering the promise of both empowerment and protection. And yet, all ID systems — digital or paper-based — come with attendant risks, which must be understood and intentionally mitigated through technology, design, policy, and enforcement choices by public and private sector decision-makers.
At ID2020, we often say that “good ID = good technology + good policy + good governance.”
There is a dangerous tendency to think that we can “tech our way out of any problem.”
The reality is that technology alone cannot adequately prevent exclusion, oppression, surveillance, and a variety of other undesirable outcomes. Building ID systems — especially digital ID systems — in an ethical manner requires governance frameworks and robust policy and regulatory safeguards that add an extra layer of protection. This is why collaboration between governments, multilateral and bilateral funders, civil society, and the private sector is so essential.
We are encouraged by the progress being made. At the same time, we are humbled by the task ahead of us and know that we must do more.
Living up to the intent of SDG 16.9 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will require not only expanding access to ID, but also ensuring that these systems are designed, built, and implemented in ways that protect fundamental human rights, enhance equity, and promote social and financial inclusion.
We hope that you will join us today in celebrating Identity Day by taking a moment to reflect on how our community — and, indeed, each of us individually — can help enhance equity, inclusion, and social and economic justice through our work.