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Human rights groups press for evaluation of digital ID

Washington, D.C. (October 21, 2019) — Today a group of more than 60 civil society organizations, technologists, and experts from around the world released Why ID: Protecting Our Identity in the Digital Age. The open letter calls on international development agencies and funders, the United Nations, and national governments to fully evaluate the human rights implications of digital identity programs, to question whether these programs are the best tool to meet the needs of vulnerable communities, and to provide transparency to civil society and other stakeholders throughout the process of this research.

“There is much hype around digital identity. International and national authorities should take a step back and consider the real-life impact that digital identity programs have on their users,” said Naman Aggarwal, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel at Access Now. “Each digital identity proposal must be questioned and evaluated to check if it benefits the users, empowers their rights, and effectively protects them from potential risks. The current trend of creating mammoth digital identity systems, with access to most aspects of a person’s life, and without respect for users’ rights or recourse for harm done, cannot continue.”

Digital identity programs — in particular, forms of official ID that require digital verification using biometrics or other personally identifying data — have been popping up all around the world. It is often assumed these programs can effectively empower at-risk individuals by giving them legal identification and access to public services. It is also assumed that the scalability of the technology is a benefit for all. However, these benefits have yet to be proven with firm evidence, and without proper safeguards, the digitization of identity has caused very real, and often irreparable, harms.

This is especially true in the most common model of digital ID where data is centralized across many agencies and services — from public transportation to healthcare to finances — making it possible to track people’s everyday activities and subject them to discriminatory profiling and surveillance. Centralizing personally identifying data in this manner also creates a prime target for hackers, putting people’s security at risk.

“One of the most concerning aspects of these programs has been their coercive and exclusionary impact on the most vulnerable,” said Carolyn Tackett, Global Campaign Strategist at Access Now. “Offline alternatives must be made available so everyone — including refugees, transgender individuals, and people affected by HIV — can make meaningful choices about how and where they share their personal data, and to ensure those with limited connectivity are not cut off from critical services.”

“Building digital identity systems that rely on biometric identifiers such as fingerprints or facial recognition without first implementing proper data protection frameworks is beyond dangerous — its consequences can be truly irreversible,” said Guillermo Beltrà, Policy Director at Access Now. “We need to change course immediately, and ensure that only truly rights-respecting identity programs are rolled out, or otherwise risk directly impacting peoples’ most basic rights and freedoms.”

The full letter is available here, and will be formally presented today to attendees at the World Bank’s ID4D workshop in Washington, D.C.

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