In 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goals highlighted “legal identity for all” as a global priority. The World Bank produced its first estimate of the number – 1.5bn – of people who lacked access to official identification. And, some innovative national digital identity systems, such as in India and Estonia, gained in reach and global prominence.
As an organization interested in the potential of technological innovations to drive inclusion and participation for all individuals, Omidyar Network identified digital identity as an area for exploration. At first, our interest stemmed from an internal exploration of the “pre-conditions for individual empowerment” which pointed to identification as an important key to unlock participation in society and the economy.
Two years ago, our first attempt at developing a strategy resulted in a rudimentary 2×2 matrix. Yet, as we commissioned research, made investments, interacted with end users, and engaged with many experts in this complex field, we realized that this matrix oversimplified the challenge, and, influenced by SDG 16.9, overemphasized universal coverage in emerging economies where a clear majority of the unidentified reside. Relatedly, we also identified early on that the definition and governance of IDs needed to be broadened beyond government-issued identity.
The companies that hold our personal data can use our data trails to identify us. This de facto identity was already ubiquitous, but often without consent built-in. Individuals commonly had little privacy or agency over their data. We started investing in technology solutions and other innovations designed to help individuals have greater agency over their data.
In recent years, the conversation about decentralized, self-sovereign identity, has grown. Groups engaged in building this form of ID are using thoughtful technical architecture and cryptography to enable people to create and assert their own identity credentials rather than depend entirely on the state or any other entity for identification. While this form of identity is still in the early stages of evolution and adoption, we are intrigued by the possibilities.
Recent events have laid bare the risks associated with digital identity. The risks of state surveillance and unbridled use of personal identity data by private internet companies have never been more serious. There is a moral case to be made that those holding our data should not be able to do anything they like with it, even if we have said “Agree” in the prevalent broken consent model.
“What is the right thing to do with identity data?” must be the central consideration when thinking about ID systems. Governments, NGOs, multilaterals, and companies have accelerated their efforts to build ID systems; providing identification to the people without IDs is likely a matter of time. For IDs to be empowering, giving more agency and control to the individual is critical. We recognize more than ever, that it is not enough to simply advocate for more coverage of those who lack official identification. We must emphasize the need for Good ID, and not just any ID.
Because digital identity is not inherently empowering or harmful, “good” needs to be further defined and more broadly owned by different stakeholders. In the past couple of years, several important contributions from several key organizations have helped shape the landscape:
Our own early attempt at this notion – with a focus on privacy – can be found in this point of view document from late 2017. We then led a panel on “Good ID: Finding Global Consensus”, which evoked a lot of positive feedback at the KNOW Conference in 2017 in Washington DC. We further explained this idea of Good ID at an event organized by WEF in March this year in London. We observed that some participants at the event began expressing the desire to use this framing in their own work. Building on this, we held our first Good ID Dialogue in June this year, with an event hosted in partnership with Department of International Development (DFID) in London.
Despite a great deal of activity in this space, we believe there is a need to deepen and broaden this conversation to develop a shared understanding of what “good” looks like, for not just national ID systems, but also for de facto and self-sovereign IDs. The World Bank will continue to play a key role in shaping this landscape. DFID, WEF, ID2020 Alliance, GSMA, and several other key stakeholders have, in their own ways, already shaped and embraced key aspects of Good ID.
Good ID Dialogues are an effort to include new voices and perspectives. It is an effort to listen to ideas of more institutions and private corporations, of civil society actors across the globe, of individuals and advocates shaping the ID ecosystem. The Dialogues are an effort to develop a shared understanding of what will be necessary to move beyond aspirational norms to meaningful agency for individuals. Our engagement will be broad and focused on developing this shared understanding on how we collectively empower individuals to exercise agency and demand Good ID; how we all incentivize and build the capacity of issuers to offer Good ID; and how we together shape a global ecosystem of institutions, norms, and standards that encourages Good ID.
Join the movement #GoodID