Digital ID: A Tool for Inclusion, or just Confusion?

By Elizabeth Sutterlin | June 22, 2021

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Two hands in front of a computer with a fingerprint scan application open.
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A legally recognized form of identification can fundamentally impact our ability to exercise our economic, social, and civil rights in their everyday life. Taking part in many routine tasks - such as accessing social service benefits, receiving medical care, opening a bank account, or even making a phone call - now rely on showing proof of a legal ID. Those without an ID can be barred from these services, as well as from fundamental democratic processes, like  voting, running for office, or participating in the political life of a community. 


In fact, the relationships between legal identity, health and education outcomes, and participation in economic and political life are so intertwined, that the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include an indicator aimed at providing legal identity to all people by 2030. However, this mandate gets more complicated as countries trend towards  adopting ID systems that use digital technology throughout the identity lifecycle (e.g. data capture, validation, storage, and transfer; credential management; and identity verification and authentication). While some governments continue to rely on legacy paper-only systems for issuing official identification cards, as of 2018, at least 161 countries had introduced at least some digital components to their identification systems. Proponents of digital ID systems tout the increased opportunities they can provide for civic and political participation, and the benefits they create, by improving efficiency of services, reducing fraud, and better authenticating users. 


Despite these lofty goals, these centralized digital systems can just as easily be used as a weapon to perpetuate existing inequalities and reinforce discrimination against marginalized communities who have been historically excluded from exercising their civic and political rights. As governments continue to expand their collection of biometric data, many questions have emerged about how these systems have been designed. Whose needs have been taken into account? Who controls information collection? Where is data stored, and how is it used?


These fundamental questions form the basis for research recently conducted by NDI to better understand how digitization of identity and public services can impact an individual’s ability to exercise their civic and political rights, particularly for members of marginalized communities. Despite a large body of research on digital ID's impacts on social and economic inclusion, a gap around the impacts on political participation remains. To explore these issues, NDI undertook a global literature review, as well as qualitative research in Malawi, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe to understand a cross-section of perspectives from those involved with the rollout of digital ID processes. Through a combination of interviews, focus groups, and surveys, NDI gathered feedback from 55 individuals, including government officials and digital rights leaders, as well as representatives of marginalized communities.


NDI found that digital ID systems can play an important role in facilitating easy access to public services. However, there are numerous aspects related to their implementation that can negatively impact democratic civic and political participation, particularly for marginalized populations. As governments digitize ID systems and electoral procedures and seek to connect and streamline them, it is crucial to ensure that the digitization of any public service or system upholds democratic principles of inclusion, privacy and security, and transparency. The following recommendations that emerged from NDI's work can help digital ID systems be inclusive and democracy-affirmative.


Recommendation 1: Digital ID systems must be designed and deployed inclusively

From conceptualization to implementation, consideration needs to be given to the impact on persons with disabilities, LGBTQI+ communities, and other vulnerable populations. A first step is involving these groups or their representatives in the design and implementation process. Governments should involve civil society representatives in decisions of whether to pursue a digital ID project. Throughout the design stage, governments should provide public consultation forums that allow civil society organizations and members of the public to offer feedback and shape the system.


Recommendation 2: Civic education on Digital ID is a necessary part of deployment

Information on the reason for, impact of, and deployment of digital ID systems should be accessible and understandable to all members of the public. Trainings on the system and its implications should be provided to staff responsible for digital ID registration, in order to build capacity to understand and explain these complex systems in simple ways. Civil society organizations, when included in the design and deployment, can also be allies in educating the public. Materials on both the purpose of digital ID and how to register should be made available in forms that are accessible to all members of the public, including those living in remote areas and persons with disabilities. 


Recommendation 3: Digital ID systems should be implemented only after strong data privacy and protection practices are established 

Strong, enforceable data privacy and protection frameworks are a prerequisite for inclusive digital ID systems. Information on what data is being collected, why that data is being collected, and what happens to it needs to be publicly available and easily understandable to all members of the public. Governments have a responsibility to be transparent with data collection and storage processes. Digital ID systems often start with a narrow focus and grow to provide additional services over time. Data protection and privacy legislation should continue to adapt to address concerns over growing scope.


These recommendations are vital to increasing trust in digital ID systems, and trust is the foundation on which voting and other political participation occurs. Without these considerations, the linkage of digital ID systems with voter registration can severely chill the political participation of marginalized communities.The global discourse on digital identity will continue to shape not only the design and deployment of these systems, but the windows of democratic opportunity. Countries where the public and civil society have a voice in shaping their digital ID system will follow a virtuous cycle and create environments for open political participation. However, in many contexts, a lack of transparency, access to information, and involvement in decision-making begets a less participatory and transparent digital ID system, ultimately impacting political participation.


You can read the full text of our white paper here.


Interested in learning more? Join us June 23rd in a conversation with digital rights expert Amanda Manyame, for the next session in our Tech Summer Series to discuss the research and recommendations from our white paper.