Modern ID systems: Watching a global identity crisis unfold

On International Identity Day, it is time to question whether technology-based identity systems are actually inclusive.

An Indian man gets his retina scanned as he enrolls for Aadhar, India's unique identification project in Kolkata, India. India's top court has ruled that the right to privacy is a fundamental right of every citizen of the country. The landmark verdict was in response to many petitions filed in courts questioning the validity of a government scheme to assign a unique biometric identity card to every individual. (AP Photo/Bikas Das, File)
An Indian man gets his retina scanned as he enrolls for Aadhar, India's unique identification project in Kolkata, India. The Aadhar initiative has been repeatedly criticised for data leaks [File: AP Photo/Bikas Das]

“Show me your papers.” We associate those four words with 20th-century state oppression and the separation of citizens from “others” – where an identity card or number was about facilitating survival, not civic participation. Modern biometric and digital wallet-based identity systems have been presented as an opportunity to create more inclusion, enable civic participation and facilitate easier access to healthcare and public services.

Yet on International Identity Day, we are seeing these modern, technology-driven ID systems – adopted by a growing number of countries – continue to facilitate exclusion and surveillance, while exacerbating insecurity and vulnerability for communities that are already among the most marginalised.

Take Uganda, where huge administrative issues with ID rollout have led to 54,000 elderly people being unable to access life-saving social protection grants. Or India, where people lost access to vital food security programmes during the COVID-19 pandemic and lost reproductive health care because of problems with Aadhaar, India’s enormous biometric ID system.

Linking everything you do back to a single unique identifier is an absolute gift to those looking to track, exploit and manipulate you — whether that is government security agencies or private companies.

There is also the ever-present risk of a data breach. In the Philippines, a vulnerability in the COVID-19 relief portal was reported to have led to the leak of about 300,000 identity documents and 200,000 files and images of medical documents. In Pakistan, a country where leaked data has often been used to identify, target and harass women, the national ID database is accessible by about 300 public and private service providers. What could possibly go wrong?

While they may not be presented as such, these digital identity systems are often a smokescreen for a broader surveillance infrastructure –  often leading to disproportionate and unnecessary interference with our privacy and enabling human rights violations.

In Afghanistan, the data collected by such systems have reportedly been used to identify, target and persecute dissidents by the Taliban after it returned to power. In other cases, such data is used to monitor entire populations, as is the case with Israeli surveillance of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Of course, these are not the stories you will hear from manufacturers of these digital identity systems or from those who operate them. They claim that a digital ID system can lead to financial inclusion of women, enable access to healthcare for children, provide refugees with access to humanitarian assistance and secure the democratic process.

Indeed, it is true that digital ID can facilitate access to healthcare and other social protections. But unless they are designed so that people can participate in society in ways that they choose, these systems become mechanisms for shoring up state power and control over people – and of course for generating corporate profits. So instead of finding a gateway to civic participation, you find yourself trapped in a Kafkaesque maze.

We need a more nuanced debate about the function of digital ID systems. If we truly believe in inclusion, mandatory unique identity numbers and digital cards are not the answer. Promoters of digital identity systems must be held accountable for their claims. We must demand openness and transparency from governments on their actual uses of such systems.

As a global network of civil society organisations that can see the nightmarish consequences of badly designed and implemented ID systems, we are clear that International Identity Day should not serve as an occasion for public relations exercises by those who peddle dangerous technologies. Instead, it is a day to reflect on the risks to individuals and societies when governments and corporations are able to demand that we “show our papers”.

This op-ed has been written as part of a broader collective effort for International Identity Day by the Privacy Defenders Network, a network of more than 25 civil society organisations and experts from across the world advocating for the right to privacy. 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.