Living in the United States, in a land of (generally) functional government services, we take an awful lot for granted. We expect to be able to board a plane, provide a copy of a driver’s license or employee ID to get into a building, and pay with a credit card. All day, every day, we expect people to trust that we are who we say we are.
That’s a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted. Because for over 1 billion people, what I just described isn’t a day to day reality.
Unlike us, they never had a birth certificate, which means they often couldn’t access basic healthcare or enroll in public education. And unlike us, they were simply unable to get a line of credit or claim their government benefits. These people – 1/6 of the planet — live invisibly.
For these individuals, paper-based identity credentials aren’t much of a solution. Imagine a refugee fleeing from war — stopping at the safety deposit box to pick up a birth certificate isn’t always top of the list. And paper-based credentials can be lost or destroyed, or even worse, may place that refugee directly in harm’s way. Without validation from their country of origin and removed from communities that could provide informal confirmation of identity, displaced people can find themselves without any officially recognized identity at all.
In contrast, digital identity — the set of electronically captured and stored attributes and credentials that can uniquely identify a person — places control in the hands of the individual. If properly designed, digital identity can be portable (retrievable without reliance on a piece of paper), persistent (interoperable across institutions), private (only relevant information needs to be disclosed), and personal (uniquely linked to the individual).
Digital identity would allow some of the most vulnerable people on the planet the power to write their own narrative, accumulate trust, and craft their future.
While the need for digital identity is acutely felt by those with no identification whatsoever, the truth is that this technology would offer benefits to you or I, too. Imagine the headache of opening a new bank account gone because the bank could seamlessly — and critically, without even seeing your private data — know that you were you. Or being able to enter a bar without sharing your address and birthdate (and whatever else is on your ID card); instead, simply sharing, in a manner the bouncer could trust to be legitimate, that you are over the legal drinking age. Or being able to access digital services without needing to remember thousands of different passwords.
Identity is broken here too, and while it might not impede our access to basic services and rights, it sure can be improved. This convergence of needs from the developing and developed worlds around new models of identity creates an amazing opportunity to create a new form of identification that will be equally available for everyone.
This isn’t a pipedream — technology already exists that makes this all possible.
Biometrics offer a way to uniquely match a digital identity to a single biological human. And distributed ledger technology, including blockchain, appears to offer a way for individuals to create a permanent, tamper-proof identity that they individually own and control. This technology potentially reduces the risk of hacking and could facilitate trust between the various organizations involved. The adoption of an open approach to identity that draws on the recent advances in biometrics and innovative technologies like blockchain – could enable both significant improvements in the global population’s quality of life and efficiencies for the governments, NGOs, and businesses we interact with. And increasing connectivity, including 40 percent estimated mobile phone penetration across sub-Saharan Africa, makes it possible for individuals worldwide to make use of these technical breakthroughs.
But technology alone won’t solve the problem. And particularly for the over 1 billion people without any form of identification currently, it certainly isn’t a panacea. For these individuals, the challenge is also one of systems, governance, and policy.
So the organization that I run, ID2020, is leading an alliance of large private-sector companies, small startups, UN agencies, NGOs, governments, and other key stakeholders to solve the problem together. By bringing all these expert voices together around a common table, we expect to untangle the problem, identify key obstacles, and leverage all of our respective strengths to help develop solutions and reach people on the ground. And we expect to implement the best technological innovations in ways that are scalable, secure, and sustainable.
This week we hosted a diverse set of these partners — 400 people from across industries and countries — at the United Nations. These various organizations and companies involved each bring different pieces of the solution to the table. On Monday, Accenture and Microsoft demoed a prototype that they’ve developed to support our mission: software that combines biometrics with blockchain technology to enable user-owned identification. This prototype may or may not ultimately be deployed, but it provided a necessary and tangible reference for individuals, startups, and other companies to begin to adapt and evolve.
Meanwhile, the UN High Commission on Refugees committed this week to piloting this type of user-owned identification for their beneficiaries — some of the people who could benefit from it most. And The Rockefeller Foundation, which is providing financial support to ID2020, led a discussion on the role of philanthropy in helping to finance this work.
ID2020 aims to have run multiple demonstration projects by 2020, with each providing valuable data on the costs for implementation, the legal and regulatory hurdles posed in different countries and populations, and the key incentives that drive adoption. And by 2030, our goal is to enable access to digital identity for every person on the planet.
It’s a bold vision, but it’s not a crazy one. And it could change the lives of billions — mine, yours, and those of many more living around the world.
Dakota Gruener is Executive Director of ID2020, a public-private partnership working to ensure everyone on the planet has access to a digital identity. She previously worked with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
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