People are reduced to their government- and industry- issued identities, even while these systems collect more data, creating new forms of exclusion and profiling.

Being able to assert who we are and what claims we have can be empowering. But identity checks are increasingly conducted and required, both with and without our knowledge. 

Modern identity systems aren't just about 'checking papers'. Increasingly, 

  • our identity is becoming our password that unlocks our devices and grants us access to our rights; 
  • our identity is also the profile developed by others, binding us to our recorded characteristics and behaviours and conduct and activities; and
  • the identity assigned to us is increasingly a proverbial weight around our necks that defines us and is used to constrain. 

Governments and industry are building identity systems to support their needs to administer, govern, and profit. In turn, they are being used to facilitate targeting, profiling and surveillance. Despite their rhetoric, they are not designed for us and our empowerment. These systems are designed to target and exclude.

What Is The Problem

There is a huge pressure towards identifying people in more and more ways, and with more data gathered about individuals. The pressure comes from nation states, as they introduce giant schemes, often deploying biometrics. It also comes from private companies, as they attempt to identify us with or without our knowledge to track our movements and profile our behaviour. The pressure comes from the international community as well, where ID schemes are considered a developmental goal in itself, often meeting the needs of donors rather than people.

At the heart of this lies the question: why do you need this proposed identity system, and why do you need it at a particular moment for a particular transaction? Proponents' failure to answer this question results in the expansion of the uses of identity across various aspects of our lives, not in the interests of the individual but in the interests of the organisation seeking to identify. So these systems fail, and often place the most vulnerable at risk. An individual fails to meet strenuous Know Your Customer requirements to open a bank account, or a biometric failure means that they can't get their government benefits anyway. It is essential to see the broader context in which an identity system is working, in order to see if identity is truly empowering or is simply putting a barrier in the way of someone exercising their rights.

The root problem is that there is a confusion between key concepts in this field, which leaves people open to abuse. There is a confusion between the need to identify an individual (for example, by checking an ID card), and the need to see if someone has a particular entitlement (for example, if they are allowed to receive a benefit). Whereas in the past this may have been demonstrated by flashing a form of identification to an authority figure, nowadays data about the receipient is often stored, processed. Names and numbers are recorded, logs are kept. The drive for identification thus becomes a generator of data about a person, linking together disparate aspects of their lives under a single identity. 

An individual's identity is deeply personal, and protecting that identity is at the heart of the individual's dignity and autonomy, that form the basis of all human rights. Yet it also pertains to broader concepts of the groups to which they belong, which means that an identity system relates to fundamental questions of belonging. These are frequently complex, difficult questions - who counts as a member of a nation? - but an ID system presents a simplistic solution and cuts the gordian knot of identity. This leaves populations who live near borders, or who are migrants, or who are excluded, further isolated from the resources of the state and the market. Thus the modern use of identification can serve to deepen exclusion.


What Is The Solution

The challenges of identity and identification need to be addressed in ways that keep the protection of the individual's rights at their heart. One solution to this can be subjecting proposals to democratic scrutiny - ID cards are often forced through by diktat or as finance bills, rather than being put under full scrutiny. This scrutiny often highlights the problems of a scheme, and allows the chance for citizens to critique how an identity system will fit into their own life and needs.

It is essential to limit the purposes for which an identity system is built and in turn, used. For instance, a system designed to manage people's tax contributions and benefits shouldn't be used for nationality purposes. A system designed for one of those purposes would be dramatically different to one designed for the other -- combining them leads not only to system design problems (that lead to failures) but also negative repercussions on individuals' access to services and livelihoods. 

Even a single-purpose mandatory system is prone to abuse. It should exist on a legal basis that is consistent with human rights law.

At an operational level, this includes limiting the occasions in which an individual is forced to identify themselves to get access to a service. When it has to take place, safeguards must be in place to limit the amount of data disclosed and generated, and ensure that this data is not misused. In particular, systems should be designed so that they do not track or profile a person un-necessarily - particularly when this occurs without their knoweldge.

Of course, any system must strive to be as inclusive as possible at the moment of enrolments and use - yet the most inclusive ID of all is to not require and ID at all, coming second is allowing multiple ways in which people can identify themselves.